Note: this article first appeared in the April 20th issue of the Okanogan Valley Gazette-Tribune
The North Okanogan is already rich with musical talent, and while springtime calendars bloom with concerts, the next generation of musicians is already taking root. At Oroville Elementary, the youngest students are under the tutelage this year of the new music teacher in town, Angela Cross.
Cross’s classroom is the musical home for students in Kindergarten through 3rd grade, and just a peek inside reveals the breadth and depth of what students are exploring. The walls are lined with electronic keyboards, drums are huddled in the room’s center, xylophones of all sizes are spread throughout, and the walls are decorated with colorful musical infographics.
Cross started in the K-3 position at the start of this school year, and has since been busy fostering musicianship in Oroville’s young minds. The fruits of her efforts have already been heard at the two concerts her students have performed so far this year. At December’s winter concert, students sang and played an array of tambourines, drums, and xylophones. “For a lot of the kids,” Cross remembers, “that was the first time they’d ever performed on instruments in front of an audience. The students played and sang from memory, and to this day some of them will just sit down at a piano and start playing their holiday songs.” At the recent Leadership Day concert, electronic keyboards were added to the mix, and students performed their music from simplified music-staff sheet music. “At the Leadership Day concert,” Cross notes, “the kids were also in groups playing different sections of single songs. That requires a much stronger ability to stay in time with a song, a heightened focus on what you’re playing, and deeper listening skills.”
Cross’s curriculum fosters her students’ advancement both by facilitating an intuitive understanding of musical concepts and by laying the foundations of simple but powerful theoretical knowledge. For instance, she grounds her classes in the use of solfeggio – the ‘do-re-mi…’ system that most of us are at least superficially familiar with from the “Doe A Deer” song. “Solfeggio is one of the best tools to give students an inner sense of what’s happening musically,” Cross says. “It helps people develop the ability to hear a piece of music, identify the melodic patterns, and then play it on any instrument. I like to think of it as a musical compass, which can help you navigate and find your way in any song and on any instrument.”
To further strengthen her students’ musical versatility, Cross is also having her classes as young as 1st grade begin learning standard musical notation, guiding them into reading 5-line sheet music. “At this point in the year,” Cross says, “the 1st through 3rd graders have recently moved from a simplified 2-line staff to a 3-line staff, which they’re already taking to quite well. By the end of the year, they’ll be working with standard 5-line staff notation. Some of the students have already become impressive sight-readers, meaning they can look at a new piece of musical notation and just sing it straight from the page.”
Beyond the impressively strong technical skills, Cross also designs her music classes to seamlessly include lessons in collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork. She sees music as a natural vehicle for such interpersonal skills. “When you make music with other musicians,” she says, “it’s totally non-competitive. You’re not trying to be louder or faster or better than anyone else, you’re instead working together to create something beautiful.”
For Cross, who is herself an active musician and can be seen performing throughout the Okanogan, the new teaching position is the perfect extension of her own musical life. “The job offers me a sort of laboratory to develop pedagogical ideas I’ve been exploring for a long time, about how music can be taught,” she says. “I was lucky to have an amazing early musical education, and I want to share and build on that.” Cross’s elementary alma mater in Los Angeles was the same school that Michael Jackson attended, and the pop star personally paid for a musical program that featured some of the premier educators in the field. “My teachers taught music not only as an art form with certain skills to develop, but also as a personal and social practice – so many important life lessons can be learned and practiced through music education.”
Parents can look forward to the next exhibition of the students’ progress at this season’s Spring Concert. For that performance, Cross’s goal is to have the children singing songs while also accompanying themselves on keyboards – meaning they’ll sing lyrics to one melody while playing accompanying chords on the keyboards. “Especially for the younger kids,” Cross notes, “that’s going to be a big accomplishment.”
The rest of us can look forward to enjoying the fruits of Cross’s teaching years down the road, when the musical seeds sown today grow into the Okanogan’s music scene of tomorrow.