Jubilation Fellow Beth Sussman with students

Beth Sussman

Los Angeles CA
Fellowship: 2016

“Kindergartners are some of the smartest people around,” says Beth, “we underestimate them. Kids are problem-solvers, quite capable at a young age.”

A Juilliard-trained pianist, Beth performs throughout Southern California introducing children of all ethnicities and languages, ages 4–12, to classical music. “Classical music is not elite,” she says. “It’s for everyone. We have fun with it, move to it, and play silly conducting games.” She also teaches students how to keep a steady beat by moving to music and poetry. “Steady beat skills can improve emerging readers’ fluency and comprehension.”

She especially loves working with young kids. “K-3 is my sweet spot,” she says. Along with classical music, Beth includes songs and dances from Africa, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, China, and Japan, including spirituals, blues, and Pete Seeger songs. In addition, Beth leads professional development trainings, and has co-led the Music Center’s Summer Institute for Educators for several years.

Teaching philosophy:
“I teach covertly, that is, the kids are having so much fun, they don’t realize they’re learning concepts such as patterns, steady beat, phrasing, or prosody. The joyfulness of music-making and movement is contagious!”

How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
“I’m very clear about expectations from the beginning, and cover consequences (there’s an observation deck, where kids can watch but not participate). Kids like structure, then they have the freedom to really go. It’s important to be clear in every way. I also set aside time to review and reflect on what we did, which helps them take ownership of the process.

“Kids love ritual; they love a beginning, middle, and end of a lesson. So I always start with a chant from Ghana, Che Che Kule. And every 20 minutes or so we take a brain break: everybody gets up, and moves around. We end with soothing music: I shut off the lights, they lie down and just breathe and listen to a few minutes of calming music. They learn that music can change their mood.

“People learn by doing, not by being lectured at. I don’t spoon-feed them, I give them musical clues, and activate their critical thinking skills. They love Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, where each character is represented by a different instrument. Years later a kid will come up to me and say ‘Remember? I was the cat,’ and proceed to sing the cat!”

How do you foster youth leadership?
“I worked with six schools in El Monte, all 4th graders with a language arts connection. We did a lot of group work, putting music to a story. I brought in lots of sound props, plastic bottles, etc. I also left leeway for them to make decisions. For example they asked, Can we use the instruments in a different way? Or use multiple instruments at the same time? I said, Absolutely. Sleigh bells or maracas for this section? I asked, and let them figure out how to proceed. We honored ideas, listened respectfully. What do we do with conflicting ideas? They figured it out.”

How have you evolved as a teacher?
“My work is very different from when I started. I had some Segerstrom teacher-training before they threw us to the schools as touring artists. A lot was learn-as-you-go. Today, it’s a different world. I do self-assessment, and try to figure out how to make it better, and what’s not working. I check in with the kids, make sure they’re with me. I always revisit and rethink workshop lessons for clarity and freshness, and I add new workshops every year. I continue to go to trainings.

“Lately I’ve added a rhythm workshop, based on an idea from another TA. Students read simple rhythm notation, create the rhythms, and clap ‘em out, in natural progression. I can do this in one day with even little kids: have them reading and writing rhythm notation in one lesson!”

What is an example of a good day?
“Exhaustion! If you’re doing it right, you’re like a wet rag at the end of the day,” she laughs. “A good day is when kids are joyful and engaged and curious. They’re excited about revisiting earlier concepts, they love the repetition of steady beat and movement activities.

“I recently worked with a class with a girl who is a selective mute. By the end of five sessions, not only was she participating, she volunteered to be a narrator for the performance. This is the power of the arts.”

Link: www.joppity.com

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