“You’re automatically awesome!” : An Eastman Music Education Student Shares his Student Teaching Experiences

For Eastman students studying Music Education, the student teaching semester is more trying than any other. A new schedule, daily travel, hours of lesson planning and many more practicing piano, conducting, and secondary instruments, are only some of the typical challenges student teachers face every day. But most agree that it is also the most rewarding: watching students progress and improve, and learning about one’s own teaching style, are invaluable experiences.

Stephen Canistracci ‘16, an Applied Music and Music Education student at Eastman, is student teaching this semester. Stephen is a euphonium player from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, who is currently working with Rich Thompson at Burger Middle School in the Rush-Henrietta Central School District.

In an interview with Stephen, I was able to get a glimpse of the life of an Eastman student teacher, and he was able to reflect on his first six weeks living the life of a public school teacher.

John: Tell me about your student teaching placement.

Stephen: My first placement is at Burger Middle School, in the Rush-Henrietta Central School District, with Rich Thompson. We teach sixth and eighth grade band, as well as sixth, seventh, and eighth grade brass, percussion, and low reed lessons.

My second placement is at French Road Elementary School in the Brighton Central School District, with Debbie Parker. There, we will be teaching elementary band and lessons. It’s interesting: instrumental music is a required class at French Road, so every student plays either a band instrument or an orchestra instrument. When I observed there last year, the students seemed to be very excited about instrumental music, which is most likely a product of the musical foundation they got in their general music classes.

John: What have been the biggest rewards and challenges of student teaching so far?

Stephen: The biggest challenges of student teaching lead to the biggest rewards. When you have a student come into a lesson really struggling with a concept, be it a scale, band music, or material from the lesson book, it’s tempting to spoon-feed them rhythms and fingerings. The challenge there is to have the discipline to let the student stumble a bit, and then guide them by singing the tune while moving in time. I always tell them, if they can sing the music, they can audiate it, and that will help them play it.

The biggest reward for me came after about two weeks of singing and moving in lessons. At first, the students were a little resistant and shy about singing, but all of a sudden they started doing it without complaining or laughing. For 95% of the students, once they started singing and moving on a regular basis, their playing greatly improved. It was a huge reward for me to see all the students not only buy into singing, but recognize that it helped them play their instruments with better tone, time, and intonation.

John: Could you share a particular story of an exciting teaching moment or a difficult situation you dealt with successfully?

Stephen: A sixth-grade sax player (who shall remain nameless) “lost” his mouthpiece. For a week, he would walk into the band room and say, “Mr. C, I can’t find my mouthpiece!” I would tell him to look in both his band and regular locker, backpack, bus, and room at home to see if he could find it. In the meantime, he was sitting in band fingering along with the music on the body of his saxophone.
I forget how it happened, but for some reason he turned his saxophone upside down, and out fall the mouthpiece cap and ligature. We both stood there staring down at this, and I remember saying “Well that’s a start!” Then I looked in the top of his sax (where you attach the neck to the body) and the mouthpiece was wedged there. I said, “Come look in your sax. Does anything look strange or out of place to you?” He responded pretty emphatically: “Nope, that’s how it always looks!” So I took a drumstick and pushed the mouthpiece out of the top of the sax so it fell into the crook at the bottom, reached in and pulled it out. I told him to be more careful, and since then he’s broken three reeds by “accidentally” hitting his neighbor with his sax. There’s always something interesting going on in middle school.

John: What aspects of your Eastman Music Education training have prepared you best for “real life teaching?”

Stephen: The Music Education department places an enormous emphasis on musicianship skills. It sounds pretty obvious, but in order to teach music, you must have those skills: singing in tune, moving in a consistent tempo, playing accompaniment parts on the piano and being able to harmonize simple tunes at sight, being able to improvise bass lines, harmony parts, and so on. Those are all things that are pounded into our heads, and they are so important. You need to have the ability to break things down into those components, and accurately demonstrate them to the students.

For example, if students are having trouble with both rhythm and notes in a passage, what do you do? Break it down into the basic rhythm patterns, and have the students echo them back to you without looking at the music. Once they can get that, have them sing the tune (without looking at the music), and sing it until they can do it perfectly. We’re trying to get them to speak the language before they try to read it, not the other way around. Chances are by the time they can chant the rhythm and sing the tune away from notation, once the music is put in front of them they’ll be able to play it just fine because they know how it sounds. After all, that’s what music is. It’s auditory. We can’t expect students to read music before they can speak it, just the same way we can’t expect a newborn to read a book before they’ve spoken their first word.

John: What are some aspects or challenges of student teaching that you were not anticipating or surprised by?

Stephen: I was a little surprised by the level of playing some of the students. We have an extremely wide range of achievement at the school, and I wasn’t anticipating the lower end of that scale. Those lessons can be a little challenging and frustrating, but they’re the most important lessons. I’ve seen a lot of those students grow tremendously in their playing, and that’s always nice to see.

John: Do you have any big projects or events coming up?

Stephen: I’m working on three pieces – one in jazz band, one in sixth-grade band and one in eighth-grade band. I’m not quite sure how it will work with the concert because I’ll be at my elementary placement by the time the middle school concerts roll around.

The big thing hanging over every student teacher’s head are the certification tests. There are a total of four tests – the Academic Literacy Skills Test, Content Specialty Test in Music, Education All Students test, and a pretty hefty portfolio assessment called edTPA. You schedule them yourself, so that’s convenient, but the registration fees … not so convenient.

John: Best quote from one of your students so far is…

Stephen: Student: “Mr. C, you’re like … a cool teacher.”
Me: “Well, that’s because music is cool, and if you’re in band you’re automatically awesome!”

John Fatuzzo