“Catch Kids Where They Are”: Spotlight on Music and Education Student Lauren Ackerman ☆

Lauren Ackerman is a first-year Ed.D. student in Music and Education.  She is the coach of the Columbia University Marching Band and is a student teacher supervisor for her program.

Can you please share your educational and teaching background?

I went to undergrad at Vanderbilt University and I got my Bachelor’s in General Instrumental Music.  It was a “four plus one” program, so it was built-in with a Master’s program.  I got my Master’s in Secondary Education at Vanderbilt as well, at Peabody, in 2008.  I got certified to teach K-12 General Instrumental Music in the state of Tennessee.  Then I taught high school during the three years before I came to TC.   After I got my Master’s I moved to California and taught for a year there.  That was a hugely new experience.  I then got called back to the East coast for family reasons, and taught in Nashville for the past two years.

Why is music is an important part of a student’s day?

In my experience with my students in both my schools (both Title I), the music room was a refuge from the real world and it gave them something to look forward to.  Even outside the aesthetic experience, which I think is really important, music is a safe haven for kids.  It’s a place they feel accepted, where they can express themselves, and where they feel safe.  In addition, they are learning something different—for students who aren’t really that good at English or Math or the core subjects—they can still excel in music.  A large number of my students in Nashville had naturally really good ears so they would be able to hear something on the radio and be able to play it on the piano, without any formal training.  That’s a tough feat and it was amazing to me.  I’d try to find new ways to teach them without the traditional, “you have to learn how to read music first” route.  I would go around the other way and take them from where they were and help them try to figure out exactly what it was that they were doing.

There is a debate in your field around teaching kids popular music, versus teaching them the classics.  Where do you fall?

That’s tough.  I fall on the side of popular music, which in our field is not celebrated much.  In my opinion, in music and with everything else, you need to catch kids where they are, and then take them to where you want them to be.   Especially the groups that I’ve worked with, if I am trying to teach them music, and it has nothing to do with their upbringing or their culture, then I am alienating them right off the bat.   So whatever music they happen to be listening to, why not start from there?  They’re already listening to it and they are already interested in it.  Then you can go into the background of what it is.  Not even necessarily music theory, but “Who is this artist?  Who are their influences?”  What I’ve learned from my students is that everything goes back to Michael Jackson and James Brown.   From there it is easy to go to jazz and blues music and to American tradition.  I don’t think we necessarily need to start with Beethoven and Bach.

Do you have any tricks to inspire creativity in your students, and how do you inspire them to love music as much as you do?

Giving kids hands-on experiences with instruments, with no formal instruction, is a great start.  If something “clicks” and they want to pursue it, great, but I never initially want to push anyone into anything because that adds pressure.  When little kids sit in front of a piano, they have a lot of fun, but when they get older, its not so much fun.  I think there’s been a pressure added.  Naturally they become self-conscious.  They worry that other people are judging them; they worry about not being good right now.  I think we are also on the brink of a generation of entitled kids and students where if they try something and aren’t good at it, they drop it.  There’s not a lot of effort being put into things.  A lot of educators are trying to work against that, but I feel like we need to go with it and try to find new ways of teaching kids.

There’s a program called “Little Kids Rock”.  Donated drums, pianos and guitars are used to teach kids rock songs right off the bat that are recognizable and fun.  Within a few weeks, the kids are a rock band.  After they’ve put on their first performance and they’ve gotten all that recognition, then they start learning what it is that they are doing.  So it is kind of teaching backwards, which I think is a really effective, new way of doing things.

You are walking into a role as the coach of the Columbia University Marching Band.  Tell us about that.

I feel like their vibe is very different than other bands I have worked with, but we will find a good partnership, for sure.

As for my band background:  When I was in high school, we were a 200-member competition level marching band that played the classics.  We rehearsed and everything was regimented. I was a musician, and I had leadership roles as Band Captain.

Then at Vanderbilt, it was an SEC school, so band was a big deal.  We did more crowd-pleaser type shows.  We played music by Chicago, rap and Top Forty music.  For my fifth year I was a graduate assistant for that marching band.

The Columbia band, I feel, is so different.  I’m trying to learn about them as much as I can.  They seem to be a totally different side of the band coin.  It is kind of in line with my teaching philosophy in that they are all about entertainment.  I was approached to do the job.  When they asked, “do you want to do this?” I said, “of course I do!”  The closest band I know to it is the Stanford band, and they are very eccentric, and from what I understand, Columbia’s band is similar.  I’m excited.

You are entering into an Ed.D. program.  How did you choose TC, and what do you hope to accomplish during your time here?

Both my sisters have advanced degrees.  My sister got her doctorate from John Jay College in New York.  Now she’s a professor in Criminology at the University of Washington.  I saw her process and how academia works.  It made me interested in pursuing my degree.

While I was writing my thesis, I kept finding articles that really spoke to me.  I found them interesting and insightful, and it was different from the main band philosophies of other people I’ve worked with.  It turns out that most of the articles were either written by Teachers College professors or former students.  So I emailed Professor Allsup and told him that I’d read a lot of his articles and found them intriguing, and that I’d like to read more.  So he sent me some, we talked, and I set up an interview.  I met with Dr. Allsup, Dr. Custodero and Dr. Abeles.  They were so accepting and positive and they just wanted to know who I was and what I thought.  It was very personal and I had a great experience meeting with each of them.  I didn’t apply anywhere else, because for me it isn’t about getting a doctorate.  It is about learning from these professors and these people in this environment. I’m really excited about the next chapter in my life. My goal is to learn from anybody I can and to gain access to as many educational philosophies in order to form my own.