Welcome to a special Sunday edition of our blog, Musician on the Month!
For the month of December, we are proud to feature one of our horn players, Ms. Charlotte Harsha! Charlotte has devoted her life to music, and when she isn’t performing with the FCWS or a number of her other groups such as the Colorado Brass Quintet or the Friends of Loveland Chamber Music, she teaches middle school band at Blevins Middle School, in Fort Collins. More information about her background and teaching can be found at the Blevins website (https://ble.psdschools.org/users/charsha).
We are grateful to have Charlotte in the FCWS and excited about her future as a music educator in Northern Colorado. We interviewed her to hear her thoughts about music and music education in 2018.
FCWS: To get us all started, why don’t you tell us who you are, what you do for the Wind Symphony, and then tell us a little bit about your musical career?
Charlotte: So my name is Charlotte Harsha, this is my sixth year as a horn player in the FCWS, and as for my music career, I have my music education degree from UNC over in Greeley, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University. I have been able to perform with lots of ensembles, both large ensembles like the Wind Symphony, and also chamber ensembles like Friends of Loveland Chamber Music, the Rocky Mountain Horn Ensemble, Colorado Brass Quintet, things like that.
FCWS: The next question, more to do with your music education background, can you tell us: what does it mean, and what is it like, to be a music educator in 2018?
Charlotte: Tough question! I believe music education plays a really vital role in a student’s overall education, and participating in music gives students multiple opportunities to exercise their brain in different ways, express creativity, learn how to collaborate with peers and work toward a common goal, exercise critical thinking skills, and they also learn self-motivation, self-management, responsibility and perseverance, and I think music educators are really lucky and we have a really unique position to provide all that for students. We use music as the medium but students are learning all these life skills in one environment and being set-up for success for their future.
FCWS: That’s great! And I think we should mention that you teach at Blevins Middle School. When did you start that gig?
Charlotte: This is my sixth year there.
FCWS: So, over these six years you spent at Blevins, as a music educator, what have been some misconceptions that people have had? And by people I mean non-musicians and musicians alike.
Charlotte: That’s a good question. And it’s a hot topic right now, with student/teacher walk-outs, and all this stuff that’s going on in our education system. There’s a lot of misconceptions I think, and I think some of it people come by honestly. They just don’t know what they don’t know. I’ve heard things like “Teachers get paid to take the summer off”, which is not true – I can get on that soapbox a different time. Or, one thing that was said to me this year “In music class, all they [students] do is just play and have fun, so really, what’s the point?”. But I’m going to spin your question a little bit and try to address those from a more positive standpoint. The first thing I like to touch on is that teachers are professionals. We’ve gone through training, many teachers have gone for graduate level degrees, and we’re experts in our field. We know what we’re doing and we’re trying to do our best for kids. And then another one is that we don’t go into it for the money. Like I said, we actually don’t get paid for summers off. I think teachers enter the profession because it’s a calling. We don’t show up and work nine to five and then just go home. We stay at school late, we take work home with us – which is not always good, but it happens – we provide opportunities for kids that happen outside of the work day or even on weekends, because it gives them chances to do something that they couldn’t otherwise do. We don’t do that for accolades for ourselves, by any means. There are easier ways to earn accolades. But we do it for kids and we do it to give them a chance to learn and thrive in different ways. When I think specifically about music education, one positive that I see in some of my students is music provides for them a “safe-place”. We talk about it my band like a second family. They have their peers in band or orchestra or choir or art or whatever it is, and they find their niche. They find their place where they belong and succeed. And we do have fun in band, and we don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, to be perfectly honest. Penalizing the arts because students have fun for participating in them doesn’t make sense to me. Of course it’s fun! I think if it’s not fun there might be something wrong. For a lot of kids, the arts are their hook: that’s why the come to school, that’s why they’re there, and that’s what keeps them engaged.
FCWS: That was great. I think that touches on concerns that people might have about the arts, in public education particularly. I’m going to jump around a little bit and I’m going to ask you: why is it important to teach music to kids in the first place and particularly why is it important to teach this classical or jazz style?
Charlotte: I love this question. Music is super important for kids. I think classical music, or jazz music, provides that “level up” in discipline, or intensity if you can use that in a good way. Through classical music, I’ve seen kids learn skills that will benefit them in life, they’re learning skills that employers are looking for when going through the hiring process. Kids have the opportunity to work hard and thrive on the success that hard work brings them. There are statistics all over the place, I read one just the other day, that kids who have experience with music performance score higher on the ACTs. The article I read said 63 points higher on their verbal scores and 44 point higher on their math scores. There are other studies that I read showed that when they’re exposed to classical music training, they’re developing language and reasoning skills, they’re learning craftsmanship – not just putting forth mediocre work but actually taking pride in creating good work – increasing coordination, musical training helps students learn pattern recognition, tune fine auditory skills, and build imagination and curiosity. Which is something I think we hear a lot of the top employers talk about as things they want in their employees. I think music is really important. It provides kids with all these opportunities that, should they choose to stay in music, will benefit them in their musical career, but even if they don’t stay in music as a performer, they’ve learned these life skills that will make them successful no matter what they do in their future. I think it’s really important.
FCWS: I agree, I think it’s really important, and you touched on some really great points. Now, I’m to assume that you like your job. What do you enjoy the most about teaching music in a middle school?
Charlotte: Specifically in middle school, I *love* beginners and teaching musical fundamentals that will set them up to be successful in the future. I absolutely love the “ah-ha” moment and I think in middle school you get a lot of that. You go from day one “I don’t even know which end of this to blow into” and within a month they’re playing hot-cross buns and you can recognize the tune! And that’s just an example of sixth-graders, but any skill they’re learning it’s all new and it’s hard work. It’s not easy, but when they have that “ah-ha” moment and they realize, even beyond that, “Hey, my hard work actually pays off”: I love that. I love seeing that happen.
FCWS: Thinking over the six years as an educator, a little bit about your musical career as a performer, teacher, what has surprised you most about a music education career? What did you face that you didn’t anticipate?
Charlotte: One of the things I guess I wasn’t anticipating was figuring out a work-life balance, and I will tell you I’m still not very good at it. I talked earlier that teachers take their work home with them, they think about their kids and students all the time, and I’m really bad about that. Which isn’t terrible, because it helps me do better at my job, I’m just figuring out that work-life balance and knowing when to take a break. I think it all comes from a desire of wanting to improve and do well. I’ve been in music for almost my entire life, I love it, and one of the things that surprised me, I know how inspiring music can be, I know how amazing it can be to have great teachers – that’s why I am where I am today – but one thing I love about it, it doesn’t just stop being inspiring. Every day there’s something new, the kids are new, the challenges are new, and it gives a chance to grow and get better, and that’s one of the things I really like about it.
FCWS: Now, knowing what you know, if there is a student that comes to you and says “I want to pursue this”, what advice do you have to tell them?
Charlotte: My advice, firstly, would be to master your instrument. Work on your instrument, perform, learn music, because that’s going to your content in your curriculum. I think to be a good music educator you need to be a good musician. But even further, if I was talking to a college student in a degree program, I would say: get out and observe teachers, master teachers, and see what they do, see how they teach. Get out and work with kids: kids think in strange ways sometimes, so figure out how their brains work. It’s hard sometimes because we’re all super busy but I think that the best way to learn is to get out, observe, work with kids, see what happens.
FCWS: Now we’re approaching the end here, and we’re going to think a little more abstract. As an educator, you work with students on a daily basis, what does the future of music look like?
Charlotte: I think it’s really, really strong. Especially in a district like PSD, we have all these good teachers and all these good music programs, I think the future of music is great. I think there’s always going to be an aspect of advocacy and trying to teach anybody “These are the benefits, we need to support this, we need to keep the arts in the school”. That’s a learning process, we need to educate, but I think it’s strong. I think we have great students – I think it’s a bright future.