Monday, October 13, 2014

Classroom Design Challenge 4: the Music Room

A colleague of mine attended a conference on self regulation, and apparently my name came up in terms of designing classrooms with self-regulation in mind.  The next time my friend saw me, she asked me for some advice on how to set up her room to help students with self-regulation.  The extra layer of challenge is that she is an elementary music teacher who, luckily, has her own room (as opposed to the poor music teacher at my school who has to roam from room to room to give teachers their preparation spares). 

Susan, I haven't seen your new room, but here is some general advice.

Sound is probably an obvious place to start for a music room.  If you are working in a multipurpose room (which a lot of music teachers in our area are), then the floor is probably tiled.  Tile is great for clean up, but brutal for amplifying sound.  The sound just continues to bounce off every flat hard surface. This can be a problem for kids like me who get exhausted from trying to concentrate and listen to instructions or performances when every other distracting sound is amplified too.  Lots of band rooms are carpeted which is great for sound but kind of gross for spit valves.  If you are in a tiled room, see if you can cover as much of the floor as you can.  Likewise, for the walls if they are hard concrete. Try to cover them with paper, cheap fabric, posters, or draperies to absorb some of the sound waves from crashing around the room.  Even old music recording studios put egg cartons on the walls to bring the reverb down in the room.

I also like to have some kind of voice amplification in my classroom, let alone a music room.  I used to have a cordless headset, supplied by the school.  (It was really important to remember to turn it off when going to the staffroom or bathroom).  I don't have the luxury of one of those cordless sets anymore, but I brought in an old keyboard amp I had with a mic that has a really long cord. 

Why amplification?  For many reasons: I can walk around the room with my voice heard by everyone in every location; in order to get a good volume, I do not have to strain my voice; in order to get a good volume, my tone does not change (sometimes an increase in voice volume turns my voice to an unintended "angry" tone); and with a handheld mic, the physical act of holding a mic is also a visual focus for attention, especially when students are sharing their work in the class (such as an "author's chair" situation).

For music teachers, I do have one caveat.  Use the amplification for instruction only, not for demonstrating singing nor singing along with students unless you are in a large auditorium.  Most teachers when they sing, project just fine, so amplification is unnecessary; in fact, it is probably overkill.  Plus, something happens to the tone of a singing voice when amplified.  If the amplification is too trebly, students will copy and sing really nasally.  If the amplification is too bassy, students will try to boom like Rick Astley (and NO ONE wants that).  The unamplified voice is the truest model for students to follow, I think.

Keep the lighting low if you want students to keep calm and focussed.  Like kindergarten teachers, you can flick the lights on when you want to get the students' attention, boost their energy level, or if they have something, like sheet music, they need to see themselves.  If students are usually on one side, and you the teacher is usually on the other, position the students so their backs are to the windows.  The reason for this is it is really hard to see the teacher when he or she is backlit. All of the shadows run across the teacher's face when backlit.  And how are you supposed to see what you are doing?  Have the room lit enough that you can see all of the students, but dim enough to keep things calm. Overhead or digital projectors also cast off a great deal of light onto a screen that helps to focus students.  If you use neither, then you can use a piano lamp or a battery operated booklight to see your notes or music.

Room Arrangement
For room arrangement, sight lines and places to do the kinds of activities you are doing are two key elements.  If you do lots of choir, then risers are great because everyone can see you and you can see them.  They are also fairly space efficient because they are tiered.  Benches are less effective, but are easily moveable and probably more available.

If you teach individual instruments such as Orff, guitar, or recorder, then I like to have some separate spaces for practice.  If everyone is practicing in the same room, they will get louder and louder just to they can hear themselves.  The louder it gets in the room, the more anxiety or excitement is going to be increased for those who have difficulty with that much stimulation.  For some instruments, you can pair students so that they can listen to each other and help, plus only half the class is playing at one time.  Move students or the pairs away from one concentrated area and have them dispersed throughout the room. 

Another thing I like to do with noisy practice is to have breakout spaces such as the hallway (make sure it is okay with teachers), a courtyard, or outside.  Outside practice spaces are great for so many reasons.  It feels good to play music outside.  It is less inhibiting because the sound just seems to float up and away (not trapped and ping-ponging in the room).  And some students who are sensitive to noise seem to relax in the outdoors.  Mind you, performing outside is a whole different story.

Use Music
My last bit of advice is to use music to set a tone.  For example, put on some calming jazz, classical, or new age music to keep things cool as one class comes in and another one leaves.  Put on Flight of the Bumblebee or some crazy Van Halen guitar solo if you want students to do something quickly, like set up the chairs or clean up.  I hear music is very powerful, so we might as well use it.

Like all learning spaces, music rooms have to match the activity and the teacher's methodology to be effective.