A Window to Music Education

October 12, 2013
Logan Buckley
Close-up of adult and child holding hands
Photo credit: Dale Preston '83

By the time Professor of Music Education Peggy Bennett came to Oberlin in 2001, she had already established herself as an innovative authority in her field. She published several books on children’s music education pedagogy based on a philosophy that she co-developed while teaching elementary and university students.

When Bennett arrived in Oberlin, she brought her expertise to the conservatory’s preschool music lab, one of the first such programs of its kind in the country. Now known as MusicPlay, it pairs children in the Lorain County area with music education students from the conservatory and pedagogy experts like Bennett.

In that novel interactive environment, Bennett has developed teaching materials and techniques by working directly with children, their parents, and Oberlin students.

The process of adapting and revising materials for use with preschoolers underscored an insight Bennett had as a music education instructor: While she had ready access to watch teachers at work—and to learn from their methods and mistakes—she recognized that teachers themselves rarely get to see what other classrooms look like. Instead, they are forced to form their own sense of how to teach.

As part of the conservatory’s Music Education program, preschool parents granted Bennett permission to videotape the classes as they were taught, offering an unrehearsed and naturalistic view of what happens each day. Over the course of several years, Bennett realized that the videos could be an incredible resource for music educators as well as parents.

Last summer, she unveiled SongWorks for Children: A Video Library of Children Making Music, an online database of videos taken while teaching children in the MusicPlay program.

“It’s a unique resource,” says Bennett. “Because the video equipment was a regular part of the MusicPlay classroom, the children hardly knew it was there.” The resulting videos are invaluable for teachers who crave opportunities to observe other teachers at work.

“SongWorks” is named after Bennett’s approach to teaching music education, about which she has written two books that draw on 20 years of experience working with Mary Helen Richards, whose research in the 1970s led to an approach called Education Through Music.

One hallmark of Bennett's approach includes introducing ideas of music literacy by combining singing and motion with simple, easy-to-understand music notation.

“For children to study music, the music has to be in them—in their bodies,” says Bennett, whose voice brims with enthusiasm as she describes her work. She believes in the importance of involving children in the everyday decisions of the classroom, engaging their imagination and creativity to help with the learning process. “I want them to say, ‘I wonder what will happen next?’—both the children and the teachers,” she says.

SongWorks consists of more than 700 videos, ranging from around ten seconds in length to four minutes, and featuring students in candid, “home-movie settings,” as Bennett puts it. The videos, hosted by the Oberlin library website, are remarkable in their variety and in the way they allow viewers to witness the unfiltered educational process. In one, a young girl acts out a scene from the Queen of the Night’s famous aria in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute; in others, children notate songs or play games based on songs like “London Bridge.”

Bennett selected the videos, which are extensively tagged and easily searchable, from a larger set of more than a thousand clips over the course of a year of work at her home in Montana. That year was made possible by a Research Status Award and grant from Oberlin that Bennett calls an “extraordinary” opportunity to devote her energies fully to research.

She views the SongWorks database as an ever-growing, open-ended creation—one that will be used by a variety of people who care about children’s music education. Already, positive feedback is flooding in from teachers around the country.

“Thank you for sharing this fabulous project with us. I can hardly wait to use it!” a teacher in British Columbia wrote to Bennett. Another teacher in Arizona called the site "a gift."

“Being able to observe children being children and participating in real-life music experiences is like candy for me as a teacher,” says Jake Harkins ’12, a graduate of Oberlin’s Master of Music Teaching program.

At the heart of SongWorks is Bennett’s desire to not only help teachers and students learn, but to allow the use of observation to foster connections between parents, children, and communities.

“It is a great luxury—one they may never have again—to watch their children in an educational setting,” Bennett says. "And they do: They come in and they don’t read books or magazines—they watch. It’s wonderful to see them seeing their children.”

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