Merry music to all Madras Elementary students
Music is a big part of the holiday season, from the festive tunes playing faintly in the background in stores as shoppers pick out the perfect gift for a loved one to the music that comes from a stage during special performances like the gala last weekend.
This season is also the time of year when parents crowd into the Performing Arts Center here in Madras to watch their kids get up on stage and add to the festive spirit in their annual winter concerts — just like they did on Dec. 13 for Madras Elementary.
This year was a special year for Madras Elementary in that regard — the school put on its first winter concert directed by a certified music teacher since somewhere around the mid-2000s.
Mark Combe was hired over the summer to fill the music position at Madras Elementary that was previously filled by an Ethos teacher.
"Last year in the state of Oregon, there was four musical educators that graduated from a college program," said Chris Wyland, the school's principal.
"I don't think there are a whole lot of job openings, or at least there haven't been in the past, so maybe that has caused people to go a different direction," Combe said.
For him, the job is truly a passion.
"It's been kind of a long journey of figuring out what I want to do," he said.
Music, for Combe, has always been a passion. Homeschooled until high school, Combe said, "Music was kind of what I was really into, what I felt like brought me to school." He said he had taken guitar lessons growing up and played music at his church.
"I felt proficient in music," he said.
After high school, Combe didn't jump right into studying to be a teacher. He spent time in Southeast Asia with a missionary organization and then, while living in Portland, worked several different jobs, including as a ski lift operator, a manager at Dutch Bros Coffee and for public transit.
"While I was working in public transportation, I started going to school for the first time and got a bachelor's degree in psychology," Combe said.
That was the point in time where he knew he wanted to work with people, but he still hadn't settled on teaching music to kids.
"When I was working in public transit as a streetcar driver, I would have a lot of field trips ride public transit, and it was always a lot of fun to show the kids the train and just be involved in that process," he said, describing how he began to realize teaching kids might be a good fit.
"I have always thought about the whole process of seeing people who end up in really difficult life situations because they didn't have enough love as a kid. That is something I started to really strongly believe," he said, which is something that drives his passion to teach.
Combe sees each class of kids every three days as a part of their rotations through the special classes, including library/technology, music and PE.
He said they have a pretty set routine for the class, and that helps the kids stay engaged — 10 minutes of rhythm, 20 minutes of singing and 10 minutes of game time.
"Early on, when you are building your self-confidence and finding your place and finding belonging in a school — I think music is just another opportunity for kids to succeed at something," he said.
"They might not be doing well in their classroom or they might not feel included in sports, but it is another chance to challenge themselves and find something that they feel like is worth investing in and coming to school for and another chance to be inspired in a lot of ways," he said.
"Music helps kids build relationships and connect with each other in a different way than they do in the classroom," Combe said. "When they are working on a song together, it's not competitive, but it's still a group activity that they are building together. I think they learn a lot about community through that, too."
Combe said that the skills learned in his classroom carry over to the regular classes as well.
"We talk a lot about a growth mindset. Music is something that, an instrument is something that, you have to work at and say 'I don't quite have it yet, but I am learning,'" he said.
To demonstrate this, Combe told his students he is going to try out a new instrument every month for the year and share with them his progress.
"They can see me really fail at something and then at the end of the month at least have a song down that I can share with them and say 'I have practiced this every day,'" he said. "It's not that some people are good, and some people are bad, it is that we are all learning."
Lisa Stroup, who teaches at Bridges High School and whose husband teaches at Madras Elementary, is also the parent of both a first and second grader at Madras Elementary and sees great importance in having a certified teacher in the music room.
"It is important because the teacher background is different than the Ethos teachers because of the teacher education aspect," she said. "(Certified music teachers) are not just quality music performers, but they are also educated teachers."
She said they have the background, knowledge and experience to manage a class and teach music at the same time. "I think the quality of the classroom is improved with the certified teacher," she said.
"I don't want to put down the Ethos teachers that we had, and I am grateful for them, but I think there is a difference with the teacher education aspect," Stroup said.
"I think kids learn through music, and when they learn the counting and the rhythm and use that part of their brain, it helps them with math and reading skills and focus," she said. "Working together as a team with their classmates to make music is an overall good educational experience they will use in all subjects."
The principal agrees that music can carry over into other areas.
"I also think it helps them academically as well," Wyland said. "Not only am I getting a break from what I normally do, but I'm still having to learn how to listen to teachers' directions, attend to the task, but I get to learn about this really cool thing."
"Learning how to read music is a really powerful thing," Wyland said.
"Students actively read music in his class. It's not a class where they just go and sit, it's a class where they get to go and do."
Overall, he said, "it gives students another area where they can be really passionate about school."
Wyland said that music is a great way to dive into language and culture with all students as well.
Heading into the winter concert this year, almost every grade learned and performed a song in a different language from their native language.
"We have a lot of English language learners at the school, so my focus was to try to find music that all students' families would feel excited about and represented," said Combe.
"I think it is easier (to break language barriers in music) in the sense that you can be a part of things even if you don't know the words yet," he said. "There's a good chance for us to see what it is like to learn something that is not in our language."
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