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Music in Our Schools Month: An Interview with Tavis Schlicker

Music in Our Schools Month: An Interview with Tavis Schlicker

“Music In Our Schools Month” is an annual celebration during March, which engages music educators, students, and communities around the country in promoting the benefits of high quality music education programs in schools. We are celebrating the month by talking to local music educators about the importance of music in our schools. I spoke with Tavis Schlicker, the head of choral activities at Concordia High School and director of the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir’s Youth Chorale.

Janice Furtner: “Tavis, is it important that there is music in our schools?”

Tavis Schlicker: “Yes, Janice, it is absolutely vital that there is music in our schools. I think that music does so much that can be quantified and explained and then it goes beyond all of that and speaks to us in ways that are very difficult to understand and define and I think everybody needs that kind of experience. The thing about music is that it’s probably the most cross-curricular activity that you could participate in. So, you want a great history lesson, music can get you there.

If I’m teaching about the renaissance period there is music for that. If I’m teaching about slavery, there’s music for that. If I’m teaching about the 1920s, there’s music that directly applies. And that gives you a better sense of the time, the culture, the place - the events going on, the people of that era and in that locale - so if I am studying China there are sounds that are unique to that region of the world. If I am studying South America, there are sounds that are unique and traditions that are unique to these different areas of the world so I’ve got geography, I’ve got history, I’ve got English and literature: so much of the music that we have is based on awesome poetry, or dramatic text.
So how do we take it and enhance the inherent passions and drama that are already there through the use of music? Math, it doesn’t feel like it would be musical but, my goodness, music is so based on math. Right? Science, same thing, the physics of sound is incredibly fascinating. And the biology of it, how does my body kinesthetically respond to music, how does my brain synaptically respond to music. So what have we covered so far? Our social sciences, our sciences, our math, our literature and English classes, our physical education, in that there is so much activity that goes into music.

They do these brain scans on musicians as he or she is participating in their musical activity. The instrumentalist, let’s say, they are physically doing stuff with their hands, with their tongue, with their eyes and the brain activity that's going on is just incredible! And the connections that are made are just incredible! And all of that is purely from an academic standpoint. Now we take it and talk about the emotive content, the artistic content and the higher level thinking and feeling that can be there. And who wouldn’t want that in their schools? Who wouldn’t want that as a vital and core part of their curriculum and experience for their students?

Music is everywhere. We hear it in the car, we hear it on our iPads and we hear it on our phones, on our speed dial. When you’re in the grocery store, even just driving down the road, the rhythms of life can be considered music, right? So we are experiencing music in so many different places and in so many different ways. That not learning about it would be silly. This is a huge part of what you’re going to hear, see, do and feel in your life. You should know something about it. You could almost argue the opposite about other things, I hear from students all the time, and not to be disparaging about other subjects but, 'When am I ever going to use these math concepts in my life?' Well, music I’m going to use in my life. Whether I feel like I’m going to be a singer or a performer or whatever, it ‘s still a part of me. It’s going to be around me in my life.
People who are completely uninvolved in music use it in their everyday life. I’ve got a playlist of tunes that pumps me up to work out. I’ve got a playlist of tunes that mellows me down to sleep. I have a playlist of tunes that gets me ready to go to work in the morning. Or I’m feeling sad and so I listen to this music.  Or I’m feeling happy so I listen to this music or I’m going to the club and I’m listening to this music. Or I’m on a date and I listen to this music. Music is really interesting in how it creates a response that other things just don’t. So there’s a power there that we’ve got to learn about and use and harness and understand. And that is why I think that music in our schools is so, so, so important! It’s got to be a huge part of what we do because it is a huge part of our lives, whether we like it or not.”

JF: “And yet, it is marginalized, it is trivialized and it is cut completely out of curriculums, partly because of dollars, partly because of testing. And you make wonderful points, but… what is your experience of a musical curriculum that works in a ‘real world’ academic situation?”

Tavis Schlicker: “That’s really tricky; there are a lot of layers to that question. I think there are amazing pockets of success and there are also unfortunate pockets of failure. When it comes to great musical education and it’s vitality and importance in schools, I think that there is lots of talk nationally amongst music educators about advocacy. How do we best promote, advocate, for what it is we are doing and try to get the support that we need to make it something that matters for everybody. The reality is you can go pretty darn far advocating in a lot of different ways: for your program, for your students, for your school. But, if you don’t have an administration that’s in support or carries the same values, it’s going to continue to be an uphill battle.

I think that a lot of people have experienced bumping their head against a wall over and over and over and over again and it gets harder and harder to continue to try. But that’s a battle that you can’t stop fighting. Maybe we are the ‘Field of Dreams’ mentality, if I build it they will come, right? But I haven’t yet got the permission to use the land: I’ve got to get permission to use the land first. So, if I am honest with you Janice, I think that this is a fault of mine too. I don’t talk to my administration enough about what it is we are doing, what it is that we want to be doing and why it is we should be doing it.

Part of the reason is because we’re busy people and part of the reason is that I don’t want to push the envelope too far or be obnoxious or get in the way but I think the administrators that we have in our school are there to support. I think the administrators that we have in our schools want the school to be better. Nobody wants a lot more work so any way that we can say, ‘Here’s something amazing that I can do or that we can do as a school, or as a group of students, that’s going to be great for everybody.’ I don’t know why any administrator wouldn’t get on board with that. Right? This is going to awesome, this is what it is going to achieve, and generally, you’ve got a plan, the people, the resources and I can rubber stamp that. And just making it happen the first time is, a lot of times, all that it takes. Well, now it’s happened once, it’s tradition. And we’re going to keep doing it. I’ve experienced that both ways in lots of different school settings where starting is the hardest thing.  But once it’s started and done, it just keeps going. And the opposite is also true; once it’s been stopped it’s so much harder to re-create that inertia, right? Get the ball rolling and it will start rolling bigger and better, further and faster down the hill."

JF: “Music is a world that is welcoming to all students and to all ages. And whether it’s an elementary, middle or high school, it is what all schools should be, welcoming and inviting and inclusive.”
TS: “I completely agree with you. There’s a book by John Jacobson titled ‘A Place in the Choir’ and the idea is that there is room for everybody.  We want you in here, we want you to experience what we get to experience together and you help make us better and more whole and well rounded. Regardless of skills, gifts and abilities, regardless of level, regardless of what you know coming in or don’t know coming in. That’s pretty fascinating.
My wife is very athletic, she played basketball growing up and through college and she coached for years and years and years at the college level, the high school level and at the elementary level, you name it.  She’s fascinated with choir: from a team component, from a team aspect. She says, ‘Choir is so different from basketball, I love basketball and I love my teams, but this is like the ultimate team.’ Or just music in general, performance music: so a band, a choir, a jazz band, whatever, I’m a choir guy so I’m thinking from a choral perspective: this is the ultimate team. Every single person in choir or in this performance is a starter on your team. Right? Every single person in choir is a star on your team. If one of these people doesn’t do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, the whole team suffers. And there’s something really cool and powerful about that.  It can makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. When everybody is totally focused and locked in and everybody breathes together and starts together it’s an amazing, amazing thing.  And you’ve got to feel good about being a part of that. You’ve got to say, ‘Wow, I get to do this neat thing with all these other people and it’s something special. I don’t get it yet, I don’t know what it is, but it’s something special.'"

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Heartland Sings, Inc. is a nonprofit vocal music production company based in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Founded in 1997 by Maestro Robert Nance, Heartland Sings creates a variety of vocal music productions and educational outreach programs.

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