By Melissa Chianta
He was an awkward kid with autism who had a hard time talking without slurring his speech. But then, one night, he opened his mouth and the most glorious sounds came out. He was singing—grandly—and for that moment he wasn’t a boy from the special needs class. He was a rock star.
Tears still come to Andy DelMonte’s eyes when he thinks about the night his student David took the world by storm singing “The Music of the Night” from Phantom of the Opera.
“No one expected this… kid to sing the way he could sing. It was just a beautiful moment [when he shared] a side of himself that no one gets to see. He did it in front of 600–700 people, and a lot of his peers, who probably didn’t even know his name but just recognized him as one of the big autistic kids. Suddenly he had this beautiful gift that people recognized. It was stunning,” he remembers.
Monumental experiences like this, as well as countless everyday victories of hitting just the right notes, prove to DelMonte and other area music educators that music matters in the emotional, spiritual, and academic lives of their students.
DelMonte, the 2013 West Sonoma County Teacher of the Year, has been teaching various vocal, instrumental, and electronic music programs at Analy High School in Sebastopol for 19 years. He thinks today’s digitally oriented kids need music more than ever.
“[They] actually get more out of it now because it is all direct human interaction. And it’s not filtered through their devices, which is really unique, really different for them,” DelMonte explains.
It’s also a vehicle for students to work out the intense feelings that accompany adolescence, says both DelMonte and Sadie Sonntag, who teaches chorus and/or band at El Molino High School and Forestville Academy in Forestville as well as at Guerneville School in Guerneville. In chorus, Sonntag lets students choose their own songs, which they use to express the emotional landscapes of their world.
“They’ve got the raging hormones, and they’ve got all of their stuff happening at home and at school. They are right in that middle school place. But when they choose the songs and…just want to rock out, I get to bring that to them,” she says.
Sonntag remembers how much being part of a musical community helped her through her own youth. She believes chorus and band bring that kind of support to her students, too.
Katherine Wiley, who teaches band and chorus at Lower Lake High School in Lower Lake, agrees that making music with others is a wonderful avenue for creating a caring network of friends. And she also thinks that it’s an effective way for kids to learn how to be responsible adults, too.
“Music allows the opportunity to help kids where they are. A lot of the other core curriculum [teachers] have to teach to certain tests, and really make sure kids meet those benchmarks. While I still set high expectations for my students musically…I can help them become better people first. We work…on character,” she explains.
To this end, Wiley greets each student with a respectful handshake and then teaches with a sense of urgency to keep everyone on task. She finds her students are not only willing participants but “amazingly talented” as well. She only has to teach a concept once, and they get it.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Tamis Baron has spent much of her 30 years as a music teacher helping responsible adults find their inner children.
“We make noises and monkey sounds and run around the room like toddlers. [We] put on wigs and boas. Because you can definitely sing differently when you aren’t you,” she says of her adult Joy of Singing classes, which she teaches at both the Petaluma and Santa Rosa campuses of the Santa Rosa Junior College.
When Santa Rosa’s Bellevue Elementary School and Meadow View Elementary School found themselves unexpectedly in need of a music teacher last year, they approached Baron with a job offer. Because she hadn’t spent much time teaching kids, she hesitated at first, but then thought, “I’m nine anyway!” Why not?
Baron, who drives to school in a hot pink and lime green Honda that matches her Scooby-Doo–themed office, likes to teach music through theater.
“It’s more fun. You get to wear a costume,” she says.
She believes in getting as much student input as she can. So she uses a purchased script for a plot outline, and then lets the kids create their own characters and dialogue, relying on improvisation to shake out the good ideas. This year her students are working on a play about pirates.
“I have this one girl who loves to [say] Arrrrgh! When I had her come up with her pirate name, she wanted to be Rosalinda. [So] I said when we introduce the pirates to the stowaway, we’re going [to say,] ‘[T]his is Rosalinda. It starts with an Arrrrgh!’” she recounts, laughing.
Her kids are thriving with her unconventional, off-the-cuff teaching style. And the Bellevue principal has been impressed with what Baron has been able to do in a short period of time, she says.
At Konocti Education Center in Clearlake, children also learn music—as well as history, math, and science—through theater. The school, which provides a performing arts–based curriculum to fourth through eighth graders, takes an integrative approach to education that, according to longtime educator Cydney Dixon, is both effective and fun for the kids.
“We all remember those songs that we learned as children that we never forget. And if we teach these kids songs that can teach them the information they need to learn, they aren’t going to forget that information,” Dixon says.
To wit, the fifth graders have just produced a musical called Our Country ’Tis of Thee that chronicles the history of the US. Meanwhile, the fourth graders are working on a musical about the parts of speech.
“I go out onto the playground and hear them singing at the tops of their lungs: ‘Herb the verb is a man of action. He’s busy all the day long,’” she enthuses.
This kind of integrative approach is also enjoying success at the Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts in Santa Rosa. Thirty-year music educator Janet Greene uses the Orff method, which implements movement and speech as well as music, to teach kindergarten through third graders how water turns to crystals or how the length of a note can be translated into the length of a piece of paper.
The collaborative nature of the Orff approach, where children not only move and sing together, but also play instruments in little orchestras, creates a sense of “musical family” for its small participants, says Greene. It’s something she thinks is particularly meaningful to the students who take part in Simply Strings, a Santa Rosa Symphony–sponsored program that provides free music lessons five days a week to 60 local kids.
Greene laments that many area schools have very limited or no music education programs, even though studying music has been shown to raise IQ and help kids learn math, language, and even empathy. To say nothing of perhaps music’s most compelling, if ephemeral, attribute—it’s ability to connect young spirits to something larger than themselves.
“When we make music, we make beauty,” says DelMonte.
Sometimes that beauty is the sound of four sections of chorus in perfect harmony, sometimes an “A” on a history test, and sometimes a misunderstood boy getting a chance to shine in front of his peers. Whatever the results, local teachers make sure music classes give kids the joy of self-expression, the satisfaction of accomplishing a task, and the comfort of connection—to themselves, each other, and the places only the soaring notes of songs and symphonies can reach.