Master Teacher Interview With Barb Underwood
By Will Janssen, WMEA Vice President, South Central District
Our master teacher interview for this newsletter is with Barb Underwood. Barb is an elementary general music educator in the Mount Horeb Area School District. Most of her teaching has been with our youngest learners. Barb will be retiring in just a few weeks after a 30-year career in Mount Horeb.
What drew you to teaching from your former career?
Having a career as a music educator was always high on my list of options and aspirations for my life. After high school I went to college and was on the path of music education. As life happens, after two years of college I ended up working for an airline for a little over five years, always with the plan of returning to college to become a music teacher. There was this moment I distinctly recall when I realized that anyone could do my job as a passenger service agent – and I wanted to have a career where it mattered that it was me, not just some person doing the job. I think that was the beginning of the realization that I needed to complete my degree to fulfill my goal of being a music educator. Being a teacher is a job not just anybody can fill, rather the individual really makes a difference.
Music education has experienced a lot of change over the past years. Is there a change in how we teach music that you have found beneficial for students?
Technology is an obvious change over the thirty years that I have been teaching. Sometimes I think the benefits are more for the teacher than the students, though I’d like to think the students benefit, as well. One thing I love is the ease of typing song lyrics and displaying them for the class. What great literacy practice we get as we learn songs! Back in the day there was the overhead projector, which actually served the purpose quite well. (Do you even know what I’m talking about?) But now the SMART Board or similar technology is really smooth and so easy to organize. I also appreciate the ability to so easily share a video or a song with a class. It can be a virtual field trip to learn about instruments and the orchestra, composers, or almost anything. There are also some great interactive games and lessons that are fun learning tools. I consciously do not rely on technology too much because I feel young people today have enough (too much?) technology in their lives. Music is so much more than technology. I really want to do my part to keep the personal connection with people and music.
How do you keep a balance between what you sense children need to experience in your classroom as compared to what the curriculum calls for, or do those match most of the time?
The curriculum is flexible enough and the variety of musical experiences is so vast. I think and hope that over time the children get the important parts of the curriculum that they need, both as a foundation for their future musical opportunities and for what they need on a more personal level.
What do you find to be the most satisfying aspect of your work?
Personal relationships with students are something I really treasure. I also really enjoy that music class is different from the rest of their school day. Music is so multidisciplinary which is something I love. In addition to learning about music we include literacy, math, science, social studies (history and geography), movement (physical education) and the emotional responses music can elicit.
What is the most challenging aspect of working with young learners?
With thirty minute classes it is challenging to build relationships with the children while attempting to stick to the lesson plan. While accomplishing the objectives is a high priority this is also the only time I have with the students so I try to allow a small amount of time to let a couple students share something on their mind.
Another challenge for young learners is their short attention span and having their body ready for learning. Fortunately music class accommodates this quite naturally by changing activities often as well as the movement that quite naturally happens with practicing beat, playing instruments and moving to songs.
How does music instruction at the youngest levels coordinate with what they experience as they get older? Is that a ‘seamless’ process? How do you coordinate with colleagues who provide instruction at older ages?
The first thing that comes to mind is singing in tune which is a skill that some people have naturally with no effort, some people do with a little attention or practice, and a few people have a difficult time with vocal inflection and singing in tune. One of my goals is providing lots of practice and attention to singing in tune so their singing has a good foundation to build on. Our music department has adopted the ‘Takadimi’ rhythm system which hopefully provides consistency across grades and buildings. In addition, with district curriculum work we have made strides toward making the curriculum flow from kindergarten through high school.
Do you connect what is happening in your classroom with other classrooms in your building? If so, how does this happen (who comes up with the ideas, how do you coordinate instruction, etc.)?
Making cross-curricular connections has always been important to me because I feel that was something missing in my personal education. To make these connections in a formal and systematic way that is something that the administration and teachers need to be involved in and onboard with to plan thematic units. In my teaching experience this has not happened in a formal way. Rather, over the years I have found ways to connect music to some of the things they are learning in their classrooms. A couple examples are: in kindergarten we look for sight words in the words of songs and in second grade with talk about fractions as we learn about note names and values. Occasionally a teacher shares a book or topic they are studying if there is a music connection that we can make in music class. Even those small connections can help integrate the children’s learning. We have also had some school-wide songs for special activities. What a wonderful way to bring the whole school together by singing a song.
You have worked with nearly every child who has attended the Mount Horeb Area School District for the past thirty years. You’ve influenced an entire generation of current and future adults about music! What moments are especially important to you as you look back?
Wow! That is a really overwhelming way to think about my career… thank you very much! In general I don’t have a great memory of precise moments in my life – but in the big picture the moments that are important to me include the beautiful sound of children singing together, their smiles and excitement, and watching many of the children grow up to keep music active and vital in their life. Please know that I do not take credit for what they do in middle school or high school and beyond – but it fills my heart to know music is important in their life.
Would you have any suggestions for new music educators who teach young learners?
As you are trying to accomplish your goals and the expectations of the curriculum remember to enjoy and appreciate the children! The children are amazing – and it is so easy to lose perspective with all the things you are responsible for. Be kind to yourself and not too hard on yourself. Being organized will be extremely helpful but it is also necessary to be flexible. There is not one right way to do something, rather there are many ways to accomplish a goal. Realize that you have a great opportunity to pass on traditions and history through music. Appreciate that you chose a profession that expects and allows you to share music with children – how cool is that?!