Archive for the ‘Music Ed’ Category

As an educator,  I strive to find ways to motivate my students. Specifically, as a band director I try to motivate my students to practise regularly.  10 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Not too much to ask, right? Well, recently I’ve learned a big lesson in motivation that has applications for my teaching practise, parenting, and personal goals too.

A few months ago I fractured my pelvis in a freak accident. My life turned on a dime. Months of physio, and lying around lay ahead of me! For months now I have been going to physio about twice a week and have made HUGE strides in my recovery.  From day one I have approached this event in my life with a positive attitude…”I can still move my toes and my legs so I know I’m going to be ok.” “I’ve got great care here in the hospital and fantastic support from family and friends.” “Woohoo, I can get my socks on all by myself!”

This positive lens has colored this whole experience until about a week ago when I finally ‘HIT THE WALL’. I’ve reached all the big milestones–standing up and walking, getting down into the bathtub, going down my basement stairs, and most recently, ditching the crutches. But now, I’m at a standstill. My mobility is functional but not back to normal. There’s no reason NOT to be motivated, yet motivated I AM NOT! I am annoyed, frustrated and tired of it all. Tired of doing exercises and feeling like I’m getting nowhere. Tired of walking like I’m 80 years old! Tired of not having my life and body back. Tired of the holding pattern. Tired of crafting my days around my injury…”Where can I park so I don’t have to walk so far?” “Which shoes can’t I wear?” “How many groceries can I pack in the bag before I can’t manage it myself?”

I could see the wall coming. I had reached a plateau and my motivation was waning. I even expressed my concern to my physio who all but dismissed it.  I think she discounted it out of surprise rather than admonishment. “Look at the progress you’ve made!” she exclaimed. Despite feeling the tailspin coming on I couldn’t turn it around and found myself face down on my yoga mat in tears last weekend. PATHETIC! “So you’re crying about doing exercises?” my husband ventured. Hmmm…what IS the big deal? It’s just some exercises. (AHA! THIS must be how my students feel sometimes about getting their homework done!) At the bottom of that ‘rut’, face down on that yoga mat, I started examining where things had gone wrong, listening to my language and negative thoughts and figuring out how I could get back to where I needed to be to make a full recovery. What happened to my MOTIVATION?

I am now climbing up the other side of that ‘rut’ and, with conscious effort, the despairing bottom is behind me. With a little distance I think I’ve figured out what happened and how I can rejuvenate my recovery process. Here’s what I’ve learned about motivation in the process:


1) FOCUS –  Every day I went to physio we added more exercises…and more and more! The list got so long it was not necessarily physically tasking but mentally daunting to get through them all (especially given my previous exercise habits.)

*Though sometimes endurance might be part of the outcome you’re trying to achieve you need to consider how long you (or your students) can maintain that as your primary goal. Can you instead focus in on what really needs to be accomplished or at least pinpoint those tasks that are critical and those that are peripheral?

2) CHUNK IT UP – One thing that helped me wrap my brain around the extensive list was to chunk up the work-outs. My exercise therapist broke the list into a two-day cycle to make it more manageable. It didn’t seem so daunting when I could look at the list and see at a glance what I needed to get done.

*Do I expect my students to get through  ALL of their exercises (or subjects) every day? Likely they would benefit from learning how to ‘chunk it up’ too. Can I really expect them to figure that strategy out on their own? Not likely! Alternatively, if you just can’t adjust the volume of work maybe categorizing tasks would provide the structure and purpose students need to get the job done.

3) PACING – The people-pleaser in me likes to meet or exceed the expectations of the ‘experts’ or ‘authority figures’ in my world. As a diligent physio patient I had been religiously following my rehabilitation plan 1-2 hours per day, 7 days a week. Anyone who knows my exercise track record knows that I couldn’t keep that pace up for long! Sometimes you need to push and sometimes you need to coast. And sometimes, it’s OK to take a break! At a recent conference I attended Patricia Katz spoke about swinging at the playground as a metaphor for life. If you constantly ‘pump’ without allowing yourself to ‘glide’ you’re probably not going to swing for long or have much fun doing it.

*Do your students really need to get through that particular homework everyday? Maybe not. What you sacrifice that day in volume or repetition you may gain in motivation and focused attention. Consequently, what gets accomplished might just be the same in the long run.

4) VARIETY – My physio often speaks about finding as many ways as possible to engage the same muscle group.  We often swap out one exercise for a more advanced one or for one that simply achieves the goal in a different way. (Just remember to take one off the list rather than adding on another!)

Knowing your tolerance for a routine is important too. When it comes to exercise I’m good for a couple of months and then my interest takes a slide.  I’m a bandwagon exerciser! Often it has to do with the time of the year or how busy I am at work. But you know what? That’s life! Why can’t I jump on the bandwagon when I’m feeling motivated and back off or change it up when I’m not? There’s a reason cross-training is successful. The key lies in discovering your tolerance for a given routine, finding activities that interest you and yes, jumping back on the bandwagon before it passes you by!

*Change it up. Vary the focus, vary the pace, vary the routine. Novelty works wonders for motivation and it stretches your brain too. It also makes perfect sense when you consider the attention-spans of our young students.

5) GOAL-SETTING – From the get-go my physio has had a plan for what movement patterns and muscle groups to address in my rehabilitation. She has shared these with me along the way and has taken my goals in to account …”I’d love to be able to soak in the tub.” We did a dry-run of how I was going to get in and out. “I want to be able to get down to my basement.” We worked on stairs. “I need to be able to drive.” We did calf raises to strengthen my pedal foot. When I hit bottom last weekend it occurred to me that I didn’t know what my next goal was. I needed something measurable to work towards. Whose job is it to determine those goals? Hers? Mine?

*It is obvious that teachers need to plan and stay a step ahead of their students. Sharing your goals and incorporating your students’ goals is really important if you want them to take ownership of their learning. Enter the inquiry strategy–a question based, project centered learning strategy. What a great way to motivate learners! What might be less obvious but equally important is to have a plan for when you reach your goal. There’s nothing worse than arriving at that point and thinking, ‘Now what?’


1) Start. Dig deep (aka Suck it up!), take a breath and begin. That’s always the hardest part.

2) Don’t do it all at once. Break it up. Plan to work for 15 minutes then take a break or work on something else. Marla Cilley of FlyLady fame advocates using a timer. It’s visual, auditory and measurable. Most importantly, 15 minutes is attainable. She says, “You can do anything for 15 minutes.” With my students I always compare it to recess. Man, that 15 minutes flies by, doesn’t it?!

3) Ask for help before you’re sinking. Struggling for weeks then announcing you’re quitting (or dropping, or failing) doesn’t serve anyone, especially not you. Ask for help as soon as you realize you can’t work it out on your own. Be as specific as you can about your challenges, your personal limitations and what you think you need to be successful.

4) Ruts or bumps are normal. Don’t let them derail you or detract from your forward progress. Acknowledge the obstacles (like negative thought patterns for example) and figure out how to get past them.

5) Figure out what motivates you. Do you need music, nature, or a friend to help you through? What about setting goals like a time limit, grade, or a number of tasks on your list to complete? External rewards work for the young and old! Getting the sticker, reaching the next ‘level’ or splurging on a big purchase might be what it takes to get you through. Or maybe the intrinsic high of getting it done is enough to motivate you.

5) Celebrate your accomplishments. Take some time to pat yourself on the back and bask in the glow of a job well done:) There’s nothing like the feeling of one success to motivate you to create another.


As an itinerant teacher I have had the opportunity to work in many schools. One thing I’ve noticed in my travels is that not all schools keep with the tradition of singing O Canada every morning to start their day. Some just on Mondays, some at the teacher’s discretion, most with a recording (…some good, some not so much!) WHY? As a music teacher I am especially aware of this seemingly unimportant detail in the myriad of start of the day routines within a school.

Here are 8 reasons why I think it’s important for us (yes, ALL of us) to sing O Canada with our students every day:

1) Transitions – The more I teach and the more I parent, the more I am cognizant of the importance of transitions. What better way to transition our students from their morning routines at home, playing on the playground and jostling into line-up at their school entrance door to a full day of learning in the classroom than by taking a moment to stand still with their classmates, breathe, and ‘trigger’ the next part of their day.

2) Routines – All kids thrive on routine. If a kinesthetic element can be a part of that routine, all the better. Yes, you have other start of the day tasks but singing O Canada is a great physical (and cognitive) precursor to the onslaught of instructions, administrative tasks and the day-mapping that are inevitably involved as students begin their day.

3) Posture – Didn’t our mothers always tell us to stop slouching and sit up straight?! Having great posture is imperative to good ergonomics and consequently, good health. Standing at attention to sing O Canada is a perfect daily reminder for our bodies (and minds too) to lengthen and straighten our spine from our tailbone right up to the crown of our head. Think of it as a mini-yoga session to start your day and a great habit to instil in our students.

4) Breathing – Good posture and deep breathing go hand in hand. Both are essential to good health and both can be employed through singing! Singing full phrases in our national anthem (if you make a point to do so) forces the body to breathe deeply from the diaphragm, engaging the whole body in the process. You NEED to take a deep breath in order to sing through a full line. What better way to begin a day’s learning than by infusing the brain and body with a healthy dose of oxygen.

5) Practising Self-Expression in Class – Don’t we as teachers wish for ALL of our students to be able to express themselves in class? Singing O Canada together doesn’t necessarily mean that children will be more willing to take a risk during class discussions or even to approach a teacher with a question but it sure is a good way to practise that skill and a good first step towards getting there. Yes, it is a bit of a risk to sing with your classmates to begin with but if we train our students from an early age and if we model taking that risk ourselves who’s to say we wouldn’t have grade 8 boys, for example, singing their hearts out til the last ‘on guard for thee’? I say we capitalize on the current resurgence of singing in our pop culture and make it OK to SING again in school (and not just in music class).

6) Citizenship & National Pride – And what about the fact that it is our national anthem? I bet this issue wouldn’t even hit the radar in the US! Have you been to a sporting event lately and looked around at the beginning of the game? Who IS singing the national anthem along with the guest singer (…who is likely ornamenting it so much you can’t even find the melody!)? Look around. It is the older generation singing and I would venture to say that many of our younger generation are unsure of the words if they are even singing at all! I think that’s a pretty sad statement on our national pride. As teachers it’s our job to teach our students citizenship and part of that learning should include our national anthem. It’s not just something to dust off in Olympic years!

And while we’re on citizenship and national pride, how about taking the opportunity to include both of our nation’s official languages? My first experience with the french language was when my grade 3 teacher made an effort to have us learn O Canada in french. What about showing our new immigrant students what it is truly like to be Canadian? Singing O Canada IS an important part of our national identity and if our students can’t do it before they leave elementary school then shame on us!

7) Community – Focusing on doing something together as a class can help create that ‘community’ atmosphere that offers a great springboard for learning. Have you ever sung in a choir? Being apart of something where EVERY voice is integral to the whole is an amazing experience. How validating for our students! Why wouldn’t we offer them that opportunity to feel apart of a classroom community? Learning is a social endeavour. I would argue that the more a student feels connected the more they will feel safe to be themselves, to risk, to learn. By feeling connected they are more likely to contribute. Isn’t that what we would wish our classrooms to be? A place where students feel connected to one another and where everyone’s contribution raises the group as a whole?

8) The JOY of Singing – Have you seen kids singing at the top of their lungs just for the pure pleasure of doing so? It feels good to sing. Not just physically, but mentally too. It takes focused attention to sing O Canada and I would argue that focusing our attention on the act of singing puts our worries and to-dos on the shelf for a few minutes while we’re busy engaging fully in that activity. What a tremendous gift we could give our students at the start of every day!:)  And what a great introduction to mindfulness, stress relief techniques and the possibility of discovering a life-long leisure pursuit in music in the process.

“But I can’t sing.” YES, you CAN! Ok, not everyone finds singing a joyful experience but shouldn’t we at least offer our students the opportunity to develop that possibility? Shouldn’t we offer our kids the chance to experience that joy at least once during their day?

Everyone can sing. As a choir director I have worked with tentative young high school boys (and whose voices are more ‘fragile’ than that?) helping them learn the basics of varying the pitch of their voice to having them singing three and four part harmony by the end of the year. I have worked with budding young actors, who were more at home on the football field than in the music room, prepare for and succeed in their roles in musical productions. I have even sat beside my young son at the piano helping him find a comfortable range and sing on pitch rather than shout. Singing is a learned activity and something kids gravitate to at a young age. There’s a reason why we sing lullabies to our babies and learn our ABCs through song. When did you forget? When was your voice stifled? Perhaps when the rest of your class (or your teacher) didn’t sing O Canada along with you?

Let’s give our students a chance to find their voice, some practise at expressing themselves and a vehicle for creating community in our classrooms.  Let’s teach our students that we value their voice in our classroom and give them an opportunity to maybe even find a little joy through music at the start of every day.  Can singing O Canada together every morning really do all that? Only if we consciously choose to let it.