Kevin Champagne is a member of the Lansingburgh Teachers Association and band director at Lansingburgh High School and Knickerbacker Middle School in Rensselaer County.
"Studying music, particularly playing an instrument, is one of the very few things that touches on all of the domains: mental, physical and emotional," he says. "Lots of studies connect music study with math skills and reading skills."
Evidence suggests playing a musical instrument gives students who are the most engaged and attentive in the process of learning the most benefit. The same does not apply to students who simply listen to music.
"Written music is a mirror of what is going on in society. That's why music changes through the years, just like art, architecture and group morality change. So music is just another way to connect with other people and the rest of society really," Champagne says.
He also teaches music theory, general music and musical appreciation on a somewhat rotating basis. Here's a look at his cool tools:
"The baton hand, my right, is the hand I use to keep time," he says, so all the students play at the same tempo. Champagne uses his left hand to shape the music and to cue various sections of the band. "While I'm keeping time with the baton in my right hand, my left hand might be making longer motions — almost like a bowing motion — to let the students know I want them to hold the notes out longer.
The baton is an extension of me," he says.
A metronome produces audible beats at precise intervals. "I use the metronome most often in rehearsals to keep time as we are trying to learn a piece. If the music is difficult, I will start at a slower tempo," he says. As the students improve, Champagne speeds up the metronome until, eventually, the students can play it in the tempo written.
He also finds the metronome helpful as an irrefutable tempo referee. "Sometimes students feel like they are playing everything in time. But there's one little glitch in there that they're not really aware of. I can hear it, but they can't."
When he puts on the metronome in that situation it helps the players stay in tempo. "They might believe the electronic metronome more than they believe me," Champagne says.
Champagne's ear might be his most important tool.
"I have to look at the music and know what that's going to sound like in my head. Then, when listening to the students I have to figure out which students are doing the right things and which are a little off."
Champagne reads music the way most people can read words: The musical notes, and their annotations — the various dots, squiggles and swirls — convert effortlessly into a stream of music within his mind, in the same way letters of the alphabet — properly arranged by a writer — evoke specific images and emotions for a reader.
His ear is also important as a tuning instrument, to listen for pitch, balance and blend, he says.
Music writing software
"I use a software program called Finale to make arrangements and exercises for the students. I've written full band arrangements on it," he says.
"I use it so students can hear what their instruments should sound like. While I can physically play all of the band instruments, I'm not necessarily able to get a professional player's sound on each. And it is important for them to hear that.
"For the jazz band particularly I like to let them hear professionals. There is a certain way to play jazz — it's not the notes and the rhythms. It's a style that's different than in a regular band," he says.
"I do use humor a lot, sometimes by accident. I much prefer a lighter feel to the rehearsal," he says, "as long as it doesn't take away from the rehearsal time itself. There are ways to say things that can sound funny, or mean or neutral. I would prefer to sound funny if at all possible. It tends to make the students listen better, I think."
March is Music in Our Schools Month
For tips and links to incorporate music into your curriculum next month, visit www.nea.org/tools/lessons/51007.htm.