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Sparking Creativity in the Music Classroom: Hear from a UF Grad

March 30, 2022

Connecting with and inspiring students is of the utmost importance for all teachers, and at the core of our online Master of Music in Music Education program. We strive to help PK-12 teachers who enroll in the program develop as musicians and educators by utilizing active learning strategies in courses that deal with contemporary topics; providing a space to network with each other, faculty, and guest speakers; facilitating discussions about common issues and concerns; and sharing ideas about how to creatively engage their own students in classes and rehearsals.

In this blog series, we hear directly from current and former students in the online Master of Music in Music Education program. They share their passion for music education, why they chose to study at UF, and how they are utilizing what they learned in the program.

Meet David Thomas

David has worked as a conductor and a professional church musician for 36 years, directing numerous choral and instrumental ensembles. He currently teaches high school music classes in the metro Atlanta area. David completed the online Master of Music in Music Education program in Summer 2020.

Can you tell me about your focus in your current role, and what’s important to you in your work?
I teach Music Technology and Classic Piano at a Title I high school in the metro Atlanta area. I find that many of our fine arts students come to school so that they can be involved in the creation and performance of music. Teaching Music Technology gives me an opportunity to reach a broader cross section of our student body and provide them with a unique insight into technology. Research has suggested that nearly 80% of students are not involved in a traditional music performance ensemble. Music technology provides that larger percentage with an avenue to be involved in creating music.
I feel my goal as an educator is to provide my students with opportunities to have positive musical experiences and connect with music in a way that brings joy to their life and helps them believe in themselves in order to become a better human being both musically and holistically. As I connect with students at this deeper level, I find they are more engaged, not only with the content, but also on a personal level.

Tell me about your passion for music.
My passion for music started very young. I grew up singing in church choirs from elementary school through high school. I had the good fortune of having our church choir director as a mentor during high school. He took me under his wing early on, and much of my conducting expertise comes from his constant encouragement and tutelage. I was also our high school’s drum major and student conductor, and I continued student conducting in college. Early in my career I taught piano, saxophone and voice privately for around 12 years.

Why did you choose UF’s online Master of Music in Music Education program in particular? What were some moments in the program that have stuck with you?
I was a 51-year-old professional musician returning to college in order to accomplish a goal of pursuing a teaching position at a college or university. I grew up in the Jacksonville, Florida area and always wanted to attend the University of Florida, but because of full-time employment in church music very early in my college career, I stayed in the local area for my undergraduate studies. After relocation to Macon, Georgia and then to the Atlanta area (and over three decades in the church music field), I decided to resume my educational goals.
I consider myself a lifelong learner and have spent the last 20 years in culturally diverse performance settings, exploring a wide variety of American musical genres along the way. Having always been an early adopter of technology, I was particularly interested in the continuing role of technological advances in music education. When the University of Florida online Master of Music in Music Education began several years ago, it seemed like a perfect fit and a way for me to accomplish my lifelong dream of a degree from UF.
Being able to complete a master’s degree fully online was the initial draw, but the future-focus and forward thinking orientation of the program, especially the technology-related courses, which explored new and emerging technologies used to create, perform and respond to music, stuck out most.

How has the Master of Music in Music Education curriculum helped you to influence creativity in your own classroom? Can you give me an example of how you’ve done this?
I think the biggest change is just to be aware that as music educators we need to encourage creativity. Often we ‘rubric’ the creativity right out of our assignments. Most of my students are non-traditional music (NTM) students, meaning they are not part of a large group performing ensemble. As part of one of our courses, we were treated to a Zoom lecture and Q&A with Dr. Robert Woody from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and much of what he said rang true with my experiences in the NTM classroom thus far. My students are not interested in a ‘purist’ approach and wholeheartedly embrace a philosophy centered around creative freedom. The environment in my music lab could be perceived as a bit raucous compared to many others–especially core classes. It reminds me of an Anne Lammott quote I absolutely loved that was shared: “messes are the artist’s true friend.”
I have started adding “Be Creative!” to almost every assignment I give my students and keep this as high priority in my new scoring rubrics. I ask my students the following questions: Is this original? Would you want to listen to this? Would you be excited to share this with your friends? These types of prompts seem to help keep them challenged to be creative as they compose and perform music.

What are some things that you learned in the Creative Thinking in Music class here at UF that you’ve been able to incorporate into your own teaching practice?
This course informed my future teaching, specifically in the areas of composition and creative listening. The reinforcement of alternative means and methods for both of those skills has carried over into my classroom, especially in music technology. While I have always felt that these mostly non-music reading students were legitimate ‘composers,’ I now had the research and additional tools to enhance their composition experiences. I especially appreciated the encouragement to allow more freedom in composition through the use of instructions and rubrics that are far less restrictive than some of my previous assignments have been.
The focus on creative listening also intrigued me, especially the knowledge gained regarding how to frame prompts that elicit divergent responses. Often we music teachers focus on convergent listening which involves questions or prompts which produce a right or wrong answer. Divergent listening, on the other hand, involves prompts or questions which should elicit a wide variety of responses. Examples would be questions like: What would be a good title for this piece? Which of the two songs that we sang do you prefer? What do you think about when you hear this music? The convergent model has been a staple in my teaching and having a better understanding of both has positively impacted my instructional model for creative listening going forward.

About the University of Florida’s Online Master of Music in Music Education

The University of Florida’s online Master of Music in Music Education program is designed to help music educators enhance their abilities as musicians, teachers and passionate students of one of humanity’s most dynamic modes of creative expression. Exploring both practical and theoretical perspectives, the program, designed and taught by experts in the field, is perfect for current music educators looking to enhance their ability to encourage student engagement with music.

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