Considering Rural Music Teaching

As our newest music teacher colleagues are looking for their first teaching jobs this summer, some might be considering positions in rural districts. Although there are a number of variations on the definition of “rural,” approximately a quarter of K-12 students in the Midwest attend what are classified as rural schools. This significant portion of the population is often overlooked in research and in teacher training programs, despite the fact that these schools employ many new teachers in their first teaching jobs. Like schools in any type of community, those in rural areas come with their own set of unique challenges and rewards.


The demographics of students in rural areas is not static. Immigration, population movements, and growing and declining industries change these communities. Rural areas are home to a higher percentage of people who identify as white than other types of communities, yet racial diversity is growing in these areas. Other forms of diversity, such as socioeconomic status, language, and special learning needs, are as present in small towns as in large cities.

In rural teaching, all of these diverse learners are usually in the same school and same classes. There might be only one school that serves all of the children in a large geographic area. I’ve taught children of millionaire farmers, homeless children, children of migrant workers who are only in my class for a few months, children who don’t speak English, and children with a wide variety of special learning needs, all in the same class. Teachers in any school know the challenges of working with a diverse group of learners, and it’s a challenge that exists in rural schools, too.

There is also a wide diversity among schools that are classified as rural. A school in a town with an industry that attracts a large number of immigrants will have different issues than a school on a reservation in northern Minnesota. Some rural districts might have more in common with inner-city schools than with neighboring districts. Every school has its own issues and strengths, and it’s important for teachers to know what they are.

Opportunities for Rural Music Teachers

The role of a music teacher can vary dramatically from one rural district to another. Some schools have enough enrollment and funding to employ multiple music specialists. Others might not be able to employ even one music teacher, leaving teachers without musical training to teach music in the general education classrooms and volunteers to run extra-curricular music ensembles. A single music specialist sometimes teaches in several different schools, or even districts. Music teachers might also have opportunities to teach non-music subjects or extracurriculars. I have taught technology classes, subbed in other classes, and provided after-school piano lessons. Through these opportunities, teachers can develop skills that will enrich their teaching in the music classroom, and deepen relationships with their students.

Creative Use of Resources

Unfortunately, resources are not equal at all schools, and many rural schools may lack what wealthier urban or suburban schools might have. Instruments, teaching materials, technology, money, and opportunities to collaborate with other music teachers might not be available in a small school. But rural schools are full of creative and dedicated teachers who ensure that their students have what they need to learn. A great asset in many rural schools is the community. Schools may not have budgets to purchase instruments or materials, but parent groups and local businesses are often willing to raise money. There might not be other music teachers in the district, but there are plenty of ways to collaborate with classroom teachers or other specialists to create cross-curricular lessons. And whatever technology is available can be used to bring what students don’t have in their own towns to them, such as videos of performing groups or Skype chats with composers. Using creativity in teaching keeps our jobs interesting, and there are plenty of opportunities for resourceful teachers in small towns.

Community Engagement

Parent and community support benefits the arts in any school, but in rural areas, the school music program can be an especially large part of the community’s arts. In areas where multiple generations of families attend the same school, there is often a large amount of support for music programs, but there are also expectations. School concerts are big events attended by anyone in the community, not just students’ families. Students’ concerts are authentic community arts events, benefiting the audience and students. Traditions can be strongly held when performances are events for the whole town or area rather than just the school, but teachers can find ways to make creative performances that meet the educational needs of the students while giving the supportive audience what it expects.

Opportunities for Students

Rural areas might not have the youth orchestras, local professional ensembles, or music venues of a city, but there are musical opportunities for students. Often, the majority of those experiences are provided by school music programs. Teachers introduce students to the larger world of music through community performances, guest artists, and field trips. Outside of school, many small towns have community orchestras and bands that are welcoming to students, providing them with the experience of playing alongside adult mentors. Multi-generational music making can supplement school music education and enhance students’ understanding of continuity of musical traditions.

For new teachers who are looking for their first job, or any teacher considering a move, rural schools can be welcoming and nurturing workplaces that provide ample opportunities to work with a diverse student population, engage with a community, and teach creatively. And maybe, like me, you’ll discover deeply fulfilling reasons to stay longer than you intended.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from June 30 to July 7

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: surgeon Dan Yoon.
Thursday, 3:15 pm: Regional Spotlight: Copland, from an NDSU faculty recital earlier this year.
Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: American Aspirations.
Sunday, noon: From the Top.
Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: Yefim Bronfman plays Brahms’ first piano concerto with the Los Angeles Phiharmonic.
Monday, noon: Learning to Listen: Dvořák’s 9th Symphony.
Monday, 8 pm: Carnegie Hall Live: pianist Daniil Trifonov.
Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

Is ‘Serial’ the first podcast to have a soundtrack released on vinyl?

Serial score vinyl

Serial broke a lot of barriers last fall, winning a Peabody to cap off a remarkable year. With audience stats skyrocketing beyond those of any previous podcast, its success opened new doors for audio storytelling online. It’s also now the first podcast, to my knowledge, to have its score released on vinyl.

The music for Serial was all original, giving the series a distinct sound. Nick Thorburn, who I interviewed earlier this year, composed the main theme along with a number of other tracks before Mark Henry Phillips came on to handle the sound design and additional scoring duties. Thorburn released his music digitally last year and for Record Store Day this year decided to release his score on vinyl.

If you missed scooping this wax on Record Store Day, no need to worry. You can still pick up a copy at Turntable Lab as you anxiously await the new season of Serial.

Click on Classical: Remembering James Horner, flashing back to ’85, and a barbershop quartet in the Capitol


Every Monday morning at 9:15, I join John Birge on Classical MPR to talk about stories we’re featuring on our website. Here’s what we’ll be discussing today.

In a tragic accident last week, we lost beloved film composer James Horner—best known for scoring Titanic. In tribute, we’re playing a steady stream of his unforgettable music on YourClassical.

Also in movie music news, I reviewed a six-disc box set dedicated to the film scores of 1985. Why 1985, of all years? Therein lies a tale.

Did you know that the State Capitol has its own barbershop quartet? They’re called the Fiscal Notes, and one of their members told the story of how this unlikely group are doing their mellifluous part(s) to ease cross-aisle tensions in St. Paul.

A new app for modern orchestra audiences

Developers in Baltimore are hoping to enhance the orchestral audience experience with a new app called ‘Octava‘.

Created by Eric Smallwood and Linda Dusman, it’s described on their website as “a tablet app for real-time program notes that acts as a concert companion for audiences at orchestral concerts.”

Here’s a demonstration of how the app works:

This month, during National Orchestra Institute concerts in College Park, Maryland, audience members have been testing out the app with their Apple or Android tablets. They can purchase tickets for the ‘Octava seating section’ in the back of the performance hall to give it a trial run.

In a recent interview with the Baltimore Sun, Smallwood said, “We want to honor the performance and the moment, not be a distraction.”

Dusman added, “I think everyone understands music on a cellular level, but that’s often not enough to carry one through a four-movement symphony. Octava serves as a kind of translator, to help with the nuances of the language of music.”

Using Appalachian dulcimers to teach music literacy

An Appalachian dulcimer (Wikimedia Commons)
An Appalachian dulcimer (Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent article posted on the National Association for Music Education (NAfME) website, Maryland elementary vocal music teacher Joann Long Benson examines the Appalachian dulcimer, and its use in the elementary music classroom.

As Benson points out, accessibility, durability, and cost are all factors that make the dulcimer a great choice for use with younger students. The simplest versions of the dulcimer have only three or four strings, and are relatively easy for students to play. And when purchased with cardboard resonators, the instruments are inexpensive enough that most school can afford them — and over time, purchase a set for the whole class.

The entire article can be read here.


And now… a cat playing the theremin

YouTube screengrab
YouTube screengrab

Not to be outdone by the time lapse video of puppies running for their dinner from earlier this week, a YouTube video of a cat playing the theremin recently caught our attention.

The technique is a bit unorthodox (at times, the feline plays the instrument with her nose), but you can’t doubt her passion and commitment.

Your move, internet dogs.

On the Air This Week

Highlights from June 23 to 30

Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans: guitar teacher Gary Lee Joyner.
Thursday, 3:15 pm: Regional Spotlight: Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth, from a recent Edvard Grieg Society recital.
Sunday, 6 am: Pipedreams: A Sonic Blockbuster.
Sunday, noon: From the Top.
Sunday, 1 pm: SymphonyCast: The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, with conductor JoAnn Falletta.
Monday, noon: Learning to Listen.
Monday, 8 pm: Carnegie Hall Live: The Academy of Ancient Music.
Tuesday, 5 pm: Music with Minnesotans.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in many forms

'Bohemian Rhapsody', arranged a 100-year-old fairground organ
A 110-year-old Marenghi organ

Some of my favorite musical ‘fun finds’ involve pieces of music or songs performed on different instruments than they were intended for — Bach on boomwhackers, Black Sabbath on banjo, etc.

And one song in particular seems to be covered more often than others — Queen’s illustrious epic, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. A recent YouTube video contains an arrangement of the song for a 110-year-old fairground organ (an 81-key Marenghi, to be exact) by Alexey Rom:

In finding this video, I was reminded of many other non-standard renditions I’ve seen of this tune in recent years. Two examples spring to mind in particular. The first being a beautiful ukulele arrangement by Jake Shimabukuro, which he performed at TED2010:

And on the other, less serious end of the spectrum, Finnish band The Porkka Playboys made a splash in 2011 with their own unique Rhapsody arrangement — performing the song in its entirety, confined to a rusty old Volkswagen (an obvious tip of the hat to the 1992 film, Wayne’s World):

Puppies growing up in 90 seconds

The owner of two golden retrievers — “Colby” and “Bleu” — set up a camera and recorded them running for dinner over the course of about 9 months.

The video (accompanied by Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down”) shows how quickly the two pups grow up over a short time, from the perspective of their dog dishes.

After being posted only 2 days ago, the video has already racked up over a million views. Take that, internet cats!

Watch them grow in the time lapse video below.