My story is probably similar to many music teachers in New York City. I was the founding music teacher at an elementary school in the South Bronx that had never had music. I was the only music teacher in the building, there was no curriculum, and the administration barely came into my classroom. I was alone. Like most of us, I dove into the hard task of trying to figure it all out, not only how to be a great music teacher but how to create a program.
I always love a challenge but one thing has always bothered me: why in a city of 8.6 million people and vast resources are we so isolated in our work? Colleagues in smaller districts have support staff, music teams and
curriculums while many of us in urban districts are working in isolation, often fulfilling the job of teacher, curriculum writer, and arts coordinator. On top of curriculum planning, classroom management, and concert prep, we must also find the time to figure out all the other myriad of programs, partnerships and opportunities that New York City has to offer.
I began to meet other music educators across the city who found themselves in the same situation. We were all passionate about our students musical growth but lacked the time and resources to really provide our students the quality music education we thought they deserved. All across the city these amazing music educators were doing fabulous work in isolation. As we began to connect with each other, a vision began to form: What if we could bridge those gaps to help each other and our students? We were not a district but perhaps we could form a community.
Our learning community started small. We met for drinks every few months to share stories and ask advice from experienced colleagues. We grew through word of mouth and later through a Facebook group. In contrast to many professional development organizations, our main goal was to build community. Our members came because they felt alone and they kept coming back because they were part of the team. Our vision centered on reducing professional isolation by creating a space where music educators in New York City could share resources and partner together, supporting each other both personally and professionally.
As a learning community, we wanted to focus on our members as the experts and the learners. Our members have lead informal sessions on topics such as how to take students through the NYSSMA audition process or how to use alternate forms of notation. Happy hours include lesson shares or brainstorming sessions. Teachers in our group observe each other, getting new ideas and offering feedback. We have run book groups to discuss topics important to our profession. Yet the key factor in all these events is a sense of wanting to connect with each other and share with a community that we enjoy, professionally and personally.
The second part of our communities vision was to reduce the musical isolation of our students. We all knew that our students achieved great things within our school buildings but we worried that they had no concept of, or connection to the greater world of music in New York City. We decided to create a festival where our students and families could come together for a day of music making, becoming part of a greater community of musicians.
We believe the music festival plays an important role in our students’ music education. It allows our students to see a diversity of musical possibilities, as they watch choirs, bands, rock bands, Orff ensembles, Taiko drummers, and pianists perform at varying levels. Our students are able to see examples of musical dedication and excellence from students who looked like them, giving them a new goal to strive towards. Lastly, our festival is based in Harlem, a neighborhood that is easily accessible for many of our groups in the Bronx, Washington Heights and Harlem. Our opinion is that this smaller, neighborhood festivals is a good first step towards potentially having our students take part in city or state festivals, which have a greater time commitment and financial cost.
I share our work as an example of how together we can start to fill in the gaps that exist for both music educators and our students in New York City. We can all take small steps to create connections with each other and build a stronger music education ecosystem in New York City. Building music communities can start with just two educators, who are willing to share resources, open their classroom doors and be a shoulder to lean on. Teachers in neighborhoods can team up for joint concerts or music sharing field trips. The steps don't have to be big, but as we join together in partnerships or neighborhood groups, we can support new teachers, learn from old teachers, build friendships and share what we know.
I would like to challenge us all, music teachers and teaching artists, private, public, and charter, to think about how we can work together to create a more connected music education community in the city. By working together, we can build greater opportunities for our students and provide them with the world class music education that New York City should have. Together, in partnerships, neighborhood teams, or as a city, we can create a dialogue of possibilities and imagine together new ways to build a stronger ecosystem of musical opportunities for us and our students. It is up to all of us. We don't have to wait for a district to organize us, we all have the power to create this community, for ourselves and our young musicians.
Leonore Nelson received her Bachelor’s in Music Performance in Voice from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and her Masters of Arts in Music Education from Columbia Teachers College. She has worked as a music teacher and choir director in the US and abroad and has spent the last ten years as a teacher in New York City, working in elementary and middle schools in the South Bronx, Queens and Washington Heights. She is the co-founder of the NYC Music Educators Collective and City Music Educator’s Festival: Uptown. If you would like more information about the Music Educators Collective or resources for starting your own group, connect with our group on Facebook or email at firstname.lastname@example.org