Using Power They Don't Have

One Woman's Path to Becoming a Music Educator

Author: Johannes Traa

December 12, 2022

Katie Almon has been an elementary school music teacher for 10 years and has a Master’s in Music Education. In addition to her day job, she is also a violist in a local orchestra and sight-reads music for fun in both a Baroque recorder ensemble and a string quartet. She teaches all 400 students in her school and knows their names by heart. Although she’s happy with her career now, there were some who doubted her early on. When she thinks back, one professor in particular stands out. I sat down with her to talk about it.

Katie’s advice for early-career teachers:

  • Be aware of people who are trying to use power over you that they don’t have.
  • There’s going to be years of challenge and discomfort. Rely on the sense that you’re doing the right things.

A test

KA: My question is: should I ever confront him? Because I bet I’ll see him again at some point in my career.

Katie is talking about Dr. Christopher Azzara, a well-known and respected professor of music education. He was teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York when she started her freshman year at the University of Rochester in 2006.

KA: I wanted to do a BA-MA and that meant taking “Intro to Music Education”. When I joined the class in my freshman year, he pulled me into his office after the first class and said, “I need to make sure you are capable of taking this class since you are not an Eastman student and you need to sing My Country Tis of Thee”. I think I forgot the words, I was so nervous. He told me that I wasn’t ready and needed to withdraw from the class. So I did.

JT: Withdraw from Intro to Music Education?

KA: Yeah. Oh, I should tell my students this story!

Katie is always looking for new ways to use her experience and intuition to inspire her students.

KA: In my sophomore year, I registered for the class again, got through maybe two classes and he went, “oh okay, it’s you again, I need to give you a test.” He gave me a polyrhythm test where I had to speak one rhythm, pat another rhythm on my lap, and keep a macro beat in my feet. Eastman students are given two years’ warning to prepare for it. I was given none.

KA: So I failed that. Also, I was really nervous. I thought, “if I can’t sing My Country Tis of Thee in front of this man, I’m not gonna be able to do polyrhythms.” And really, it had nothing to do with if I would be a good teacher. For what I do today, it’s just not relevant.

JT: What did he say?

KA: He told me that I had to withdraw from the class. And that’s when I knew that probably was not true. So I went to the U of R academic advisor to music majors and explained the situation. And he said, “that doesn’t sound right, let me call up the music ed department at Eastman.”

KA: I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but I felt like this man was trying to use a power that he didn’t really have. Because I was 19 and obviously nervous.

KA: The head of music ed at Eastman, Dr. Susan Conkling, agreed that Dr. Azzara can’t just kick someone out of Intro to Music Ed. Azzara did apologize to me but didn’t really look at me for the rest of the year. He gave me a B+ at the end of it. I thought I deserved better, but I wasn’t going to fight it. Anyway, I got through.

Moving forward

JT: And then what happened?

KA: When it came time to apply for the BA-MA, I decided not to do it. I felt like I needed to be in grad school somewhere where I was going to have support. If I were to need help, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get it because of him. Which is why I decided to finish out my four-year degree and go to grad school for music education, which is how I wound up at BU.

Katie left U of R with a Bachelor of Arts in Music with a concentration in Music Theory and a BA in Psychology. She pulled it off by taking the maximum number of classes every semester. She also made time for orchestra rehearsals as well as private viola lessons with an Eastman DMA student.

Dr. Conkling was known for supporting women composers and performers. She happened to join the faculty the same year as Katie graduated and they wound up talking after Katie got an unusually high score on a music theory placement exam. They had never seen a test like that from a music ed student.

KA: So she said, “you have nothing to worry about here, just do your thing.” She kind of acknowledged that there was an ego thing going on with Dr. Azzara.

How to solve problems with real children

JT: How did it go from there?

KA: BU went great! I felt well-prepared and student teaching went really well. I had several really supportive teachers.

JT: Can you share one example?

KA: Yeah. The professor at BU who would normally have taught Elementary Music Education was on maternity leave that semester. And they got a grad student to teach it. But it was someone who was working on their PhD and simultaneously was an elementary music teacher and had been for many years if not decades.

KA: That was probably the best class that I took because it was just so practical. And I wonder if it would have been different if I had a professor who was more of a researcher and taught it from that perspective. He knew how to solve problems with real children.

Sight before sound

Katie admits to using little of what she learned from Dr. Azzara in her curriculum other than the high-level framework that made him famous.

KA: It’s the concept of sound before sight. Music is now treated more like language where you’re “speaking music”. There was a time when that was novel and it’s not anymore. And what he talks about is…limited.

JT: How so?

KA: In his lectures, he never said anything about how you teach a kid who’s reluctant to sing, how you get them to sing in their head voice, which is a huge challenge for some kids. Some of them come to kindergarten having heard their parents say that they can’t sing or they don’t sing or that singing is something to be embarrassed about.

KA: His book is like, “here are seven steps and then you’ve got it.” Kids are way more complicated than that. I’m trying to think if there’s anything from his class, any bit of wisdom, that I use in my teaching. I don’t think so. But I wouldn’t be opposed to doing it if he had something useful to say.

A journey to the Island of Arioso

JT: What’s an example of a technique you use that isn’t in his books?

At this point, Katie’s face lights up with excitement. Surely the same enthusiasm that she uses to inspire her students.

KA: So, when I teach vocal improvisation, we take a journey to the Island of Arioso where Mrs. Arioso guides them. She only sings. She doesn’t talk because a wizard put a spell on her island so that she can only understand you if you sing. So already we’re doing singing improvisation.

KA: But then there are two mountains on the island and there are birds that fly around them. And the birds hum (they’re hummingbirds) because humming is less scary than singing when you’re improvising. One bird asks a question and the other one gives an answer. The question is I-V and the answer is V-I.

In chord notation, “I” and “V” (pronounced “one” and “five”) refer to the two most basic chords: tonic and dominant. It’s a starting point for understanding tonal harmony.

KA: The two mountains are called major and minor. And the birds hum differently on each one. I accompany that on guitar, I demo it many times, and they get used to answering. I can hum something on I-V and they hum something back. They don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t understand that it’s tonic-dominant. But they will answer me with dominant-tonic because they’ve heard it so many times.

KA: And then in first grade I reveal that there are actually four mountains, not just two, which is a big deal for them. And I have pictures of mountains that I project on the whiteboard and we turn out the lights. So they’re like, “okay, we’re on the Island of Arioso now”.

KA: Eventually, the wizard lifts the spell so that the birds get their voices back and can sing on the syllable “loo”. When the kids have enough confidence, they can start singing, but they can always go back to humming if they want. By the end of first grade they can improvise on major, minor, Mixolydian and Dorian as a class and individually.

KA: Dr. Azzara doesn’t know about the Island of Arioso. So, you know…different method. My way is just more fun! And when it comes time to improvisation, how do you get kids to a level of comfort where they’re willing to try it? Those techniques are not in his books. Because teaching is complicated.

I created this music

KA: There are those moments when I think, “someone told me I was not going to be able to do this and I did it”. That’s a pretty cool feeling.

JT: What would you tell other people who are in the position you were in, who have ambition and want to learn a lot?

KA: One thing is, be aware of people who are trying to use power over you that they don’t have. And I think I would say that there’s going to be years of challenge and discomfort.

KA: Even though there were years when things weren’t going well job-wise, I always had the feeling that I was doing the right thing because I sensed that I was learning quickly. I knew how to implement what I was learning right away and make it my own. And I also felt like some of the best things I was doing were coming in the moment without planning. That was a sign to me that I needed practice but that I was wired right for this job.

After 10 years on the job (including during the COVID-19 pandemic), Katie now feels that she deeply understands her role as an elementary school music teacher. It has all clicked into place. But the question remains…

KA: Sometimes I do think about it. After I put a concert together with kids and they’re singing with two-part harmony and with emotion and they’re engaged, the whole school is engaged. I look at that and go, “I did this. I created this music in this school with all these kids. I was told I would never be able to accomplish this.”

KA: The issue for Dr. Azzara, I think, was that if you’ve got someone who’s not who he sees as a good teacher, then it’s a threat to his reputation. Why take the risk with someone who looks like they might not be able to be your disciple?

JT: It has all worked out in the end, though, hasn’t it?

KA: Oh, totally. It’s what I was meant to do.