Placing shared responsibility and decision making into the larger conversation of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, defines the students as co-teachers. Employing this sort of pedagogy by involving kids in song choice decisions or taking on leadership positions means that teachers are willing to give up a certain amount of control. I spoke with Mary about her hiring practices, since I noticed this willingness in all of the teachers I observed. She told me she hires people who are experienced in working with children and come with excellent references. She’s aware that the culture at HBV is unique in its patient, collaborative, and supportive learning style, and only hires people that can understand the reasoning behind setting such a tone. In their annual report sent to donors, HBV quoted a young participant as saying: “Highbridge Voices is a family. We are here to do our very best, and we help each other every day” (Making a Difference, p2). After a semester of observation, defining this community as a family is also the way I explain it.
My first day observing HBV—back to that Friday in February—was also the new accompanist’s first day. Hearing his incredible playing followed by witnessing the kind and gentle way he interacted with the kids was a special opportunity. In general, rather than yelling, or trying to shush the students when things get noisy, students are brought back to focus with a rhythmic clap.
The balance between discipline and efficiency verses having fun and joking around is masterfully struck, and each time I witnessed it I was impressed by how quickly things could transition from noise to music. Having specialized full-time and part-time staff members proved to be incredibly useful and effective on the accompanist’s first day. In one of the moments of transition, the conductor clapped to bring the Concert Choir back to task, asked the pianist for an A, pointed to the altos to start singing a cappella at measure 27 in “Sing to Me,” gave them beats 3 and 4 of the previous measure, and cued them in. Within a matter of about 7 seconds, the rehearsal had completely transitioned from a moment of fun to a moment of work.
I observed this kind of easy and quick transition on multiple occasions. There is a certain type of communication at HBV. Students are spoken to directly, and given explanations and reasoning behind activities and exercises. For example, when the Chamber Choir students were learning count singing, as mentioned in the Appendix B: Cumulative Skills, Mary explained to them that this was another way to read, sing, and talk about music. The line that struck me from her explanation was:
“For 26 kids in this room, there are 26 different ways of handling a problem…I want to give you as many different ways for learning how to read that music as you can.”
This type of direct communication, is a respectful way to use language in teaching, and I witnessed it as being effective as well (Hess, 2017 and Samuels, 2018). Samples of direct communication I witnessed were:
– an intense discussion about Alice Childress, feminism, and race, in creative writing
– when beginning a song, I heard: “Sit down, you’re not ready. Ok, please stand again.”
– intense eye contact and intentioned gestures when reaching the end of a piece
– a quick hand wave from a student acknowledging a missed note
– the nonchalance of not knowing, and willingness to ask a question
An environment where questions and learning are encouraged and supported contributes to the feeling of security discussed earlier, and it also widens the definitions of teaching and learning. By engaging students in song choice decisions, accepting that students contain their own existing expertise, and positioning teachers as learners and vice versa, HBV exemplifies a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy on a daily basis. The leadership structure at HBV is a very short pyramid. Teachers learn from students, students learn from students, teachers learn from teachers, everyone is learning and teaching each other. During one particular rehearsal, the students were invited to relay their experience from their state exams they had had that day. Since the conductor wasn’t there, the kids had to explain every detail, communicating clearly so she could understand. When working on count singing, or singing on solfege syllables, students work together in groups, talking through the pitches and rhythms, questioning and helping each other as they decide on the correct approach. When singing a song they’re familiar with, students are invited to conduct the choir—leading their classmates through dynamic and tempo changes, and getting the feel for standing on the conducting side of the music stand. Culturally Responsive Pedagogy responds to the culture of the room. Defining culture is one of the sticky steps in Ethnomusicology, so in this paper, I’ve included this “culture of learning” as part of the larger culture (Bates, 2017; Clauhs, Hawkins, Martignetti, Niknafs, and Talbot, 2013; Doyle, 2014; Karvelis, 2017; Shaw, 2018).
The way that cultures are most obviously represented at HBV is through language and music. Rather than singing exclusively from the Classical European canon, students sing songs in English, French, German, Swahili, Zulu, Japanese, Latvian, Spanish, Sanskrit, and Latin. The variety brings in music from the cultures represented in the room, as well as from cultures beyond. Mary wrote her Master’s Thesis on the correlation between second language acquisition and ear training abilities. She looks to these languages as an opportunity for kids to share and learn in culture, as well as a tool for developing the ear. (As a side note, representation in music education is something that Mary has worked for in the Bronx, and is working to bring more attention to on wider platforms as well, including the American Choral Director Association where she has been asked to speak on inclusivity multiple times.)