“We are part of a vibrant global classroom,” says Michael to his students, “part of the world of steel pan and drummers worldwide.”
A teaching artist for 30 years, Michael has taught and performed throughout the U.S. and Canada. “During the last several years I have prioritized teaching over performance, because I feel there is a strong need for what I can offer young people. I also really like doing it!”
“Music and dance are essential human activities that enhance the health and balance of mind, body, and spirit. Anyone can have these things be a part of their lives. There are as many varieties of intelligence and aptitudes for learning as there are individuals, and each individual possesses a variety of aptitudes and abilities. A teacher should try to be alert to these individual capabilities and be open-minded and inclusive toward each student.”
How do you produce a vibrant learning environment?
“It starts with me, my composure and presentation has to be correct. I can’t come in and express doubts or be in a foul mood. I only use positive reinforcement, never ever any negative criticism, which is not productive at all.
“In the beginning, everyone’s afraid of mistakes, mistakes provoke shame and embarrassment, so I address it early on. I emphasize that everyone makes mistakes. I always make mistakes, in every performance! The real skill is in recovering from mistakes.
“It’s a collaboration, not a dictatorship, though I do set limits around acceptable behavior. Too much chaos is not good for anyone.”
How do you foster youth leadership?
“In steel pan culture, Caribbean-style, people help each other, it’s a cooperative interaction. There’s a performance aspect to each class, and performance is leadership. You are presenting to the community, friends, family. The performance aspect really reinforces the idea that your point of view is legitimate.
“We have pan sections, in which some learn faster than others, so they become the leader of that section. But the baton gets passed around, and sooner or later everyone has a chance at a teaching role. I also ask students to come stand with me and listen and give feedback to the group.”
How have you evolved as a teacher?
“It’s an endless process! Now I understand why elders should be honored, because you really do get smarter. I’ve refined my teaching skills, from selecting material, and fitting to skills and age levels. I’ve become more realistic about what folks can accomplish. I don’t hold onto ideas of what is the most ‘important’ music to learn or study. I’m more open minded about the value of all music. Now I find out what they love, e.g., Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry.’ I would’ve dismissed it out of hand before, but now I go ahead. And it turns out to be straight up calypso!”
What is an example of a good day?
“When they’re in good spirits. And when I see individuals make a breakthrough. Some come in apprehensive, or lack confidence at the beginning — you see it in their body posture. When I see them change, those are the best days. For example, during a class of fifth-graders slated to perform at Folklife Festival, one of the girls, after weeks of saying ‘No. Way. Can. We. Perform!’ told me that now she could.
“Sometimes especially the boys are having troubles, they come in with long hair flopping in their faces. Then one day they pull it back or cut it – they show their faces – that’s a good day. Music is helping their confidence – those are golden moments.”