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Monday, September 24, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Building a Community

Community seems to be the world’s big interest right now. There are many buzzwords in use to describe it. One writer (Jeff Goins) coined the term “tribe” to describe the sensation of community. We have all heard the African proverb and title of Jane Cowen-Fletcher’s children’s book: “It Takes a Village” (1994). Other words to describe the sense of community include: social media, brotherhood, association, family, neighborhood, residents, society, turf, alliance, union, fellowship, fraternity, sorority, guild, league, order, club, clan, clique, gang, party, team, congregation, convention, band, assembly.

Well, you get the idea, there are many possible words to describe the concept of community. What is community anyway? Why does it seem so important that we have so many words to describe it? Community is shared agreement and similarity of some kind. We agree and share a common, similar purpose. It seems to be in our human nature to do so. Yes, there are some of us who prefer to spend large amounts of time thinking inwardly about our outside world, but generally most of us belong to some aspect of community.

My university students refer to themselves as a “family” within the music school community, because this term implies that my students will reap the benefits of family. The students serve as big brothers and sisters to incoming freshmen. The students urge each other to do their best, and the students absolutely bond together in the face of obstacles found within the academic community.

My studio students generally refer to themselves as a studio family, as I think of them. The concept of family thins a little as the children age, because families and teenagers begin to distance themselves from each other, which can all be part of the natural growth process. Families get busy with other children and other activities, and sometimes the studio family connection takes on a different significance and plays a role that is less important to the family.

What got me thinking about the concept of community this week is my discovery of some old newsletters I had written for my studio well over a decade ago. As I read through the newsletters and re-familiarized myself with their content, I realized that the newsletters served a purpose much like my blog does now. The newsletters provided a forum for me to express my thoughts related to a major purpose and the success of my enterprise to fulfill that purpose.

I made another important connection between my newsletters then and my studio success at the time. During the newsletters era, I recall that my studio shared a true bond of community. I saw this bond reflected in the subject matter of the newsletters. The topics I included in the newsletters helped to bring all of my studio families into a studio community, where we shared our commonalities as they related to studio teaching and teaching our children in particular. I remember that we did many things as a studio family during that period: we traveled to institutes together, we had studio picnics, parties, and pool parties; we participated in community events as a performing group; and studio families had sleepovers and other special events in arenas outside of the teaching studio.

My parents shared their experiences. New ideas about review or practice motivation were shared in the newsletters, and I acknowledged in print which parents were offering the suggestions. Parents shared poems and successes and offered to serve as mentors to parents who were new to the studio. We maintained a calendar that listed studio events, concert opportunities (symphony concerts or other recitals), and composer birthdays.

The students submitted their achievements in the studio and in practice, such as completed graduation recitals, 100 days practice club milestones (and 200, 300, 1 year and more), 500 club spots (500 repetitions), and talent show performances. I included any and all achievements. I was tuned in to possible submissions. I maintained a folder in the studio, and if a parent or student mentioned something to me, I asked them to quickly scribble it down on a newsletter submission form. Then I added these submissions to the monthly newsletter.

The difference today between my blog and my earlier studio newsletters is that I do not broadcast the names of specific students in the blog unless I am given special permission to do so. I try to keep the identities of my students and their families protected. I still write about the same general topics related to teaching and parenting as I did back in the newsletter days; what is missing though is that close connection in the studio that the newsletters provided.

This week, give some thought to how you can build a community within your studio. Going through this process of reflecting on a sense of community within your studio will help you to identify any areas of your thinking that might not be serving your community well. For example, if you are doing something for the money, this may not be a shared purpose with your studio families, and you may find a disconnect between you and the concept of a studio community.

Here are some key points that I think are important to build a sense of community:

Define your purpose. Why do you have a studio? What are you trying to accomplish? Is this a purpose that will be shared?

Share your purpose. How will you communicate your purpose to your studio? I used my newsletters at one time to share my purpose. I also used my studio policies and procedures statement to define my ongoing purpose in teaching at the studio. My introductory new parent letter is very clear about my teaching purpose. My parent course is very upfront about my teaching, studio, and studio parent expectations. This is one sense of communication, but how will you communicate within the studio on a regular basis? I have a connection provided by the http://musicteachershelper.com website that allows me to email all my parents or students at one time with the click of one button. The site also allows me to maintain a small website that provides me with a place to list announcements that are related to the studio. I think a monthly newsletter along with a monthly calendar might be an easy and small way to provide connection and communication within the studio family.

Build connections. How will you connect your community members with each other? How will your studio families stay in touch with each other? Can you build a contact list? Can you provide a lesson calendar that all families can access? Can you provide a gathering place for families during group classes and suggest possible parent activities during these times? I am working on a studio T-shirt idea, and I plan to provide each of my students with one. I may carry this idea over to the university arena as well.

Encourage involvement. Enlist your studio family members to be a part of the studio. Can you enlist the assistance of your studio family members to arrange performance opportunities, such as local nursing or retirement homes, community venues (libraries or schools), or special events? What special skills, talents, or abilities do your studio members represent? One of my studio parents is helping me to design some awesome T-shirts, and I have another who is designing a special music coloring book for children that is related to the mother’s special art field. This mother’s daughter helps us to come up with some pretty cool phrases for T-shirts. At the last spring recital, I listed short biographies for each performing student in the recital program.

Provide shared challenges. Do you have goals to suggest? Are there some challenges that could be joined studio-wide, such as practice challenges on a weekly or monthly basis or as part of some other time frame (31 days of Halloween scales, 12 days of Christmas Twinkles, Thanksgiving Turkey Twinkles)? Scheduling a performance event can provide a shared challenge, as students in the studio will be working together to be ready for the event.

Acknowledge achievement. Do you have a place to feature students who have achieved a milestone? We have a practice chart in the studio, but we also have places to hang children’s artwork, children’s pictures, completed practice incentive charts, certificates, ribbons, etc. Whenever I award a special certificate of accomplishment or achievement to a child, I offer the child the option of taking the certificate home or hanging it in the studio. Very seldom does a student opt to take the certificate home.

Be open and vulnerable. Most important in my opinion is learning how to be open and vulnerable to your community. Sometimes teachers and parents get caught up in the “being strong” mode, and we forget that this mien actually erodes the sense of community. Community is about shared agreement and similarity. If one person is always strong and never in need of anyone else’s help, then there is no sharing or connection here. Like other things, being open and vulnerable is something that can be learned and practiced until it is an ability. Learn how to ask for help. Learn how to share your concerns appropriately.

This blog has been a new community for me. I still have the same purpose as a teacher that I had decades ago. Now, instead of limiting myself to my teaching studio, I have opened up the possibility of building a world-wide community that shares the same purpose of teaching our children to be better human beings and using music as the vehicle to accomplish that. Along this journey, we are also learning how to be better parents and teachers so that we can be more effective in working to achieve our purpose.

This blog is about to turn two years old. I started it at first as a self-discipline exercise. I like to write and have always done so since I was a child. However, life and profession pull me in different directions frequently. I started the blog as an exercise in consistency. Also, I wanted to write down some of the things that I taught so that I could use them as reference materials for my students and their parents. My first post was October 27, 2010. Since that time, I have reached readers from over 103 countries. About 7,000 viewers visit each month as of this writing. Along the way I have met many other teachers and parents all over the world who have wrestled with the same teaching issues that I have, and we enjoy sharing our experiences, our struggles, and our solutions with each other. I hope that this community grows and grows over the next year, because I think our noble purpose is exactly what our world needs to share more of today.

Join the community. Join the discussion.

Change the world -- one child, one student at a time.

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