Wyoming Music Teachers Find Community At UW Summer Program

Jul 18, 2014

It’s before 8 o’ clock in the morning, and there’s a surprising amount of noise coming from a basement classroom in UW’s library.

Inside is a group of about 25 sitting in a circle, playing instruments or humming along. For most of the year, these people are music educators teaching in schools all over Wyoming. But in the summer, they’re students themselves—in a UW summer master’s program. Today, they’re learning a melody by ear.

“One thing we’ve been talking about is the difference between presentational music and participational music,” says Michael Cox, a band teacher in Greybull. “So music that you just perform and music that you just get together and play. That’s one thing that I want to take away and show to my students—that you can just get together and play music.

Cox values learning alongside peers who’ve spent time in K-12 education—teaching band, choir, or music.

I just finished my second year of teaching, and there are teachers in this cohort that have been teaching for 30 years,” Cox says. “So, getting together with a group of teachers who do the same thing that you do—and have been doing it longer and trying it with different students in different ways. I think that’s the biggest thing I can take away from this.”

"Being in Wyoming, we don't have a lot of different cultural experiences that students can go see. A lot of teachers sometimes don't bring in new world music to the classroom, because they don't want to do it wrong. They don't want to be, you know, inauthentic."

Throughout education, it’s difficult to get training in new concepts. But now is a good time for music educators to do so. The arts have just been added as an option in the Hathaway curriculum. And a new set of core standards for the arts has been developed. Ron Ryan, an orchestra teacher in Laramie, says they’ve spent time this summer getting up to speed on the new benchmarks.

“Oh man, what a wealth of resources that was,” Ryan says. “Everything from guiding questions, essential learning strategies, all the way down to worksheets and things that are available to help you plan your lesson. It was unbelievable.”

The program is meant to appeal to mid-career music teachers, according to Dave Brinkman, the UW professor who created it nearly two decades ago. Brinkman retired in June, as the program’s largest cohort ever works towards degrees.

“The strength is that it allows people to get their degree, but over time—and not have to concentrate it in two years and quit their job,” Brinkman says. “So these are people who probably wouldn’t have gotten their Masters any other way.”

Students have some online coursework in the spring—but most happens over three summers. This is summer number two for the current group. There’s a lot of focus on creativity and improvisation. Students learn folk dancing and make didgeridoos. Tanya Severson is a K through 6 music teacher in Cheyenne. She says what she learns here will come in handy in the fall.  

“Most of these classes they really structure so that they are applicable right in our classroom,” Severson says. “Undergrad, there’s a lot more playing, there’s ensembles. It’s a great experience, but this is directed more at teaching than anything.”

In ‘world music’ class, Professor Rod Garnett passes out a bunch of Peruvian panpipes—sets of bamboo tubes of varying lengths and tones.

“The style that we play at the University of Wyoming is called sikuris,” says Garnett. “We have a set of pipes and they’re divided. Each person has half the pipes you would need to play a melody. You have to have the other person there”.

Garnett demonstrates—with the help of his wife. And minutes later, the group has the tune down. Elin Mayo is a K through 6 music teacher in Gillette. She says exploring music outside western tradition is crucial, but it’s not something all teachers in the state are comfortable doing.

“Being in Wyoming, we don’t have a lot of different cultural experiences that students can go see,” says Mayo. “A lot of teachers sometimes don’t bring in new world music to the classroom, because they don’t want to do it wrong. They don’t want to be, you know, inauthentic. Finding those resources and finding ways to bring those different types of music to students is very important.”

Professor Garnett’s work takes him around the world, and he get students comfortable with many musical styles and instruments—from the Peruvian pan pipes—to the Balinese gamelan.

Mayo says, in addition to knowledge and experience, students in this program gain a much-needed support system.

“When we go back into the classroom and we’re struggling or having a tough time, we have those resources to pull,” Mayo says. “We can call these other people, so we don’t feel so isolated teaching. I’m the only music teacher most of the days in my building. And for some districts, they’re the only music teacher in their town.”

Despite the challenges, Mayo says she’s excited to get back to work in the fall—and bring some new ideas into the classroom.

These reports are part of American Graduate – Let’s Make It Happen!  -- a public media initiative to address the drop out crisis, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.