Living the Dream

An innovative music program in Westchester schools.

As a child, music was the main inspiration in my life. That interest sustained and I went on to earn a music education degree from New York University. As a music teacher, I have repeatedly seen how music changes kids’ lives and how it is a vehicle to inspire all kinds of learning. Today, I am better known throughout the Westchester community as Maestro C.

As Maestro C of the Dream Jam Band, I see how our live performance, which is somewhere between a concert and musical theater, engages kids with that same level of attention and enthusiasm. We speak to the everyday experiences of our audience.

During concerts, members of Dream Jam Band perform as different characters, such as Barry G who is shy, Erin the Red who sometimes likes to show off, Francine who mediates and clarifies the learning arcs, and me, Maestro C who can be impatient. The various characters have distinct personalities, enabling children to easily identify with and feel empathy toward the characters.

As members of the Dream Jam Band, we are educators and musicians. Our professional background and positive experiences from being in the band motivated Dream Jam Band to create a curriculum for the classroom that uses music as a gateway to multi-disciplinary learning. Beginning with a full-year kindergarten curriculum, students are exposed to diverse musical genres as a channel to cross the boundaries of subject areas.

The lessons relate to the life experiences of the students while exposing them to different cultures and traditions. We help the students make important connections so they can see how the things they are learning are interrelated.

The lessons are presented as story sequences built around a specific music genre. They are conceptualized to allow students to transition back and forth across subject areas with original music, the soundtrack of each lesson. The songs reflect each lesson’s story line. Content areas include: geography, listening skills, history, science, environmental science, astronomy, social studies, language arts, social skills, math, music, instruments and movement.

New vocabulary words are defined in each lesson as new concepts are introduced and previous learning is reinforced. Puppet characters help bring the history of the genre to life while interacting with teaching artists and students.

Each story line emphasizes the geographic and historical connections between the world today and the world long ago. As the stories unfold, students discover the differences and similarities of human experiences. They develop an understanding of how people lived and worked long ago, gaining respect for historical lifestyles as well as following rules and civic behavior.

Students are asked to see problems from different perspectives. In a debate between the classical conductor puppet and the folk puppet about what music is, the students are asked: “What are the differences between Maestro Maestro and Banjo Betty? What do they have in common?” The Dream Jam Band uses the drama of the story, along with the acting of the puppet characters and teaching artists, to create situations where students are engaged to solve issues.

In one segment, the students learn that Mozart was inspired by Turkish Janissary music when he composed “Rondo alla Turca.” The students march with tambourines and triangles as percussion instruments become integrated into the orchestra. When the puppet Melody cannot tie her shoes and feels frustrated, students engage in a problem-solving dialogue. The music always keeps the experience optimistic and safe, even when conflict arises. It instills a sense of security that we can work things out together. Meanwhile, the Dream Jam Band song “I Can’t Tie My Shoes” is played to the tune of “Rondo Alla Turca.”

The teaching artists model curiosity as students are asked to imagine ideas and use their five senses to realize the full range of the experience. The story line of each lesson provides rich opportunities for literary response, comprehension, character development, plot, theme, setting and point of view, as students express opinions about experiences and issues.

Original songs in the programming tell stories, introduce ideas and reinforce learning. Each lesson has a live musical performance and sing-alongs, teaching musical concepts such as melody, rhythm, pitch, dynamics and tempo.

In a lesson about sea shanty songs, the Sea Captain Puppet arrives using a telescope to teach astronomy, telling time, weather, teamwork and cooperation as students discover how it feels to work in tandem to music to get the job done.

Timeless themes are dramatically and musically presented with interactive opportunities throughout Dream Jam Band programming. There are positive messages and multiple entry points to engage all students. Most importantly, the children are inspired and eager to learn.

After a trial in several kindergarten classes in Port Chester, New York, last year, the program has been implemented in four Port Chester elementary schools, across 15 kindergarten classes, including at JFK Magnet School Early Learning Center (ELC), Edison School, King Street School and Park Avenue School. The program helps ensure increased participation and elevated comprehension for the 366 kindergartners in the district.