“I believe that musical improvisation — creating one’s own music — can and should happen from the very beginning,” says Rachel. “I also ask students to use their ears all the time, which makes for a very interactive learning process: ‘what did you notice?’ ‘what was different that time?’ ‘what could make it even better?’ ‘what did you love about that?’ With these questions, observation becomes a habit. Students start listening to their own and others’ music with a curiosity about what made it sound that way. And curiosity and observation of our world are some of the most powerful things that we can learn.”
Founder of the Rhode Island Fiddle Project, a free program where kids learn traditional fiddle and dance tunes, Rachel also directs Community MusicWorks’ Summer Program in Providence, and is on the staff at a number of community-based programs around Boston. Her style ranges from contra dance to classical. She also tells stories with an improvisatory trio of violins, voices, and vibraphone. She has been an artist-in-residence in neighborhoods, schools, and Zion National Park. As one fan put it, “she makes joyous community everywhere she goes!”
A former anthropology major, Rachel kept coming back to music. “Music is a place where we can create, move, take risks, make sound, collaborate, and perform. I’m drawn to the excitement of sharing this with kids, as well as the challenge. I feel authentic as a teacher when I’m sharing something I truly love to do. I like to develop long-term relationships with my students, no matter what age.”
“Improvisation should happen from the very beginning. Once students know how to play one note, they develop ownership over the learning process by deciding how to play that note. What’s the rhythm? How many times? Who starts? How loud? How fast? Once they have two notes, then a whole scale, the possibilities are limitless.
“The other anchor in my teaching is the importance I place on aural learning, on listening. Once students realize that they don’t have to rely on sheet music, they develop the ability to translate anything they hear or sing onto their instruments.”
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
“The Socratic method is helpful, because it gets students active in their own learning. I ask questions at the end of an improvisation or performance. It’s interactive, students ask questions of me, too. I also use a series of simple improvisation games so that the structures are familiar. Each week, students create something new within those boundaries, and experiment with pushing the boundaries.”
How do you foster youth leadership?
“The students make the decisions. I give them the vocabulary, and a tool bag: which dynamic, tempo, etc. They make the choices. I also ask them to lead. For example, one student will be the one who takes the audible breath before we play.”
How have you evolved as a teacher?
“I began trusting students, that they can take the tool bag and run with it. It took me some time to know that they can come up with something really great. Also, when I first started, I taught fiddle tunes that already exist, but now I include composition as part of the class.”