Carlisle School’s music department is a busy place

by Cynthia Sorn

They don’t miss a beat. Carlisle School’s music teachers Tara Callahan, Angela
Monke and Kevin Maier are enjoying their teamwork. (Photo by Cynthia Sorn)

During the Mosquito’s recent visit with music teachers Angela Monke, Kevin Maier and Tara Callahan, it was clear that they enjoy working together to ensure that music instruction is an intrinsic part of student life at the Carlisle School. They are proud of the gold award won by the Middle School Choir and the bronze awarded to the Concert Band this year at the Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Conductors Association (MICCA) Concert and Choral Festival. However, the teachers’ focus is on the process and joy of learning music.

The school’s music education begins in preschool and continues through sixth grade. Budget cuts years ago removed the seventh- and eighth-grade music classes; however older students have opportunities to participate in band, chorus and musical theater.

Elementary music includes improv

In preschool, songs and movement support musical concepts. The class is taught by Callahan, who joined the faculty this year after teaching high school music in her previous position. She said that she thoroughly enjoys this age group; “They are a blast.”

Monke, who started working at the Carlisle School in 1998, teaches general music twice a week to students in kindergarten through third grade. Though she uses singing games and instruments to introduce musical concepts, she described how she is focusing on improvisational experiences more often this year. “I give the kids more leeway to experiment,” she said. For instance, in kindergarten, she may ask students to improvise vocal sounds. “I tell them, make a snake sound,” she said. In first and second grade, students are taught to play xylophones. She might ask them to improvise, or to turn their improvisations into composed pieces.

“The primary purpose of the general music curriculum is to teach the nine National Standards for music,” explained Monke in a later email. These include singing, performing on instruments, improvisation, composition, reading and writing musical notation, listening to and analyzing music, evaluating music performances, understanding links between music and other arts and disciplines, and understanding music in relation to history and culture.

One part of the music program is to support the classroom curriculum. For example, Monke supports the kindergarten curriculum through music and poetry. In addition, on May 9 and 10, she will help the kindergartners perform a new musical, titled Everything I Always Wanted to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

In first grade, Monke provides a unit called “Children and Music Around the World.” She teaches a variety of songs to students in third grade for the Native American Museum.

The classroom curriculum also supports the music department. For example, until students have learned the mathematical concepts which support fractions, it is difficult to teach note values of half beats or quarter beats. Learning the basic rhythm concepts begins in second grade, but detailed learning starts in fourth grade.

Music instruction in grades 4 to 6

Callahan teaches general music classes to fourth, fifth and sixth grades. She said, “Drawing connections between music and other disciplines (such as math, social studies, literature) is an important component of our music standards, but just one of many [components] that make up a well-rounded school music curriculum.”

She is appreciative of the earlier four years experience the students have had in rhythm, pitch and note reading, before she takes over their musical education in fourth grade. “I wanted to point out how vital the music skills Angela teaches in early childhood are to the development of all our students,” Callahan said later in an email. She said that it is because students “get such a solid foundation in their formative years that we are able to have such flourishing upper-elementary and middle-school band and choir performing ensembles.”

From fourth to sixth grade, students study topics such as African music, rock and roll and composition. Callahan said she will be introducing world music to bring in other forms, such as music from Venezuela. “While the work that Angela does may not be as visible since it is largely process–and not as performance–oriented, it is absolutely integral to the high level of musical achievement here in Carlisle. The fact that students get such a comprehensive education in general music here has really impressed me.”

Callahan enjoys teaching middle school music. “They really want to learn—it’s a fun age group.” She recognizes that the previous music teacher, Megan Harlow, was very popular. To help the transition this year, Callahan asks the older students for input on how things have been done. Stopping in during the interview, Superintendent Joyce Mehaffey complemented Callahan, saying “You’ve made a lot of connections with the kids. Asking the students . . . it gives them ownership.”

Chorus, musical theater

Callahan also leads five choruses and a musical theater class. Fourth- and Fifth-Grade Choruses meet once a week during the school day, and Fifth Grade Treble Chorus (non-audition) meets once a week after school. Restarting the seventh and eighth grade general music program is on Callahan’s “wish list” for the future. She points out that there are many other opportunities for middle school students who want to continue in music.

The Middle School Choir (for sixth, seventh and eighth graders) is also non-audition, and meets twice a week during the middle school tutorial period. Choir members meet in smaller groups, called sectionals, once a week either during lunch/recess or after school (times rotate to keep things equitable). The Middle School Choir has added night rehearsals from January through March.

The Middle School Advanced Choir, the only auditioned chorus, meets once a week after school. On Fridays, Callahan holds an after-school Musical Theatre class, which includes 20 students preparing a June performance of “Thwacked!” a lively musical with a positive message.

“Additionally, many of our students are active in community orchestras, private music lessons, musical theater and many other musical venues outside of school,” Callahan said.

Instrumental music

Maier, in his third year at the Carlisle School, teaches five bands involving students in grades four through eight. About 70 students participate in the fourth-grade band, which meets once a week at 7:15 a.m., before school starts.

This year Maier has started a student mentoring program, bringing in 15 middle school students to mentor the fourth graders during their rehearsals. Almost every fourth grade student decides to try an instrument, he said. Besides band rehearsals, students also have instrumental lessons once a week. After fourth grade, lessons are offered privately through the Instrumental Music School of Concord-Carlisle (IMSCC).

The fifth-grade band meets once a week during school. The middle school Symphonic Band meets on Mondays after school. Auditions are not required for participation in the Symphonic Band, which has approximately 75 members. There are two bands for which students must audition: the Concert Band and the Jazz Band. The Jazz Band meets after school once a week and includes about 15 students. The Concert Band includes roughly 50 students. It rehearses during school twice a week and after school on Tuesdays, as well as night rehearsals from January up to the MICCA festival.

MICCA, Great East Festival

Callahan said the Middle School Chorus, in honor of their gold medal, has been invited to perform at the MICCA Stars at Symphony concert at Mechanics Hall in Worcester on April 22. “The students put in a lot of hard work,” said Callahan. Maier said there were “some disappointments” in the MICCA experience of the Concert Band, which received a bronze medal this year. The group was the only middle school band performing that day; the rest were high school bands. He said it was not clear if the judges were aware of the different levels of the bands. “But it’s not about the medal,” he said. “The band performed beautifully.” He praised the students’ positive attitudes. “I was proud of them taking pride in their performance.”

New this year, the Symphonic Band will perform at the non-competitive Great East Festival in New Hampshire. After the band’s performance at the festival, they will enjoy a trip to Canobie Lake Park. The band will be adjudicated by two professionals, said Maier, but the evaluation is different than that used at MICCA.

Faculty, Jazz Band in fundraiser

To offset the cost of the trip, a talent show fundraiser called “Carlisle’s Got Talent!” is being held on April 28. Included in the list of performers is the Jazz Band, Carlisle School teachers Marcella Pixley (cello), Gene Stamell (guitar and vocals) and Chiao Bin Huang (dance). ∆