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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Manchester

#DidntQuitTeaching: Aubrey Smalls, The Creative Music Teacher


Today on A Different Edupodcast, we continue our series #DidntQuitTeaching. Recent surveys find that as many as half of all teachers are considering leaving the profession in the next two years. What about those that don't feel like leaving right now? We look at one part of teaching that seems to be necessary for many teachers to keep going.


yeah, I haven't really felt like quitting at all.


This is Aubrey Smalls. He's an elementary music teacher in Virginia.


one of the teachers who I used to work when I first started, she just mentioned something about, you know, letting the kids be kids. As time went on, I realized that is very important


I first came into contact with Aubrey when I saw some of the creative things he was doing with his students and posting on Twitter. Around Christmas time he was playing Jingle Bells on his tenor saxophone and having the kids sing along. The striking thing about the video was that the kids were having a great time and so was Aubrey.

I wanted to be part of this joyful teaching, so I had my students play a stick part along with Aubrey's performance. I posted it to Twitter and we had an inter-state collaboration going.

A week or so later, we followed up "Jingle Bells" with a collaboration on "Dreidel, Dreidel."

During the first summer of the pandemic, I was able to utilize Aubrey's clarinet skills for a virtual workshop on New Orleans Jazz.

Through all of this, it seemed clear that what kept Aubrey going as a teacher was the opportunity for him to be creative for and with his students.


I'm like, alright well, what animals do you guys want to do next? One of the kids raised his hand and said a Zubra I said a Zubra? I was like I was like what is that? He said, you know it's a zebra but it has a little bit of red underneath. I was like alright and then I you know I just asked well what sound does that make? He said whatever sound then we just kept on going


With a background in jazz, creativity was always a part of Audrey's musical expressions, but he didn't plan on utilizing it teaching elementary music.


No, when I when I was in high school. I knew I wanted to continue with music. I didn't really know much besides I just wanted to keep on playing my my saxophone. And once you do the student teaching, I was able to pick. You had to do secondary and primary. I was in middle school and I was in elementary school and I liked the elementary school a lot. Just because it was fun. You can do these little simple songs. The kids like them. They're not worrying about anything else. And even after that, I still thought that I was probably going to wind up doing middle school band.


But an elementary teaching job opened up and Aubrey went for it. Since then, Aubrey's classes have been full of engaging creative music lessons. His creative ideas for students to make instruments at home during emergency pandemic teaching were featured in a segment on the Richmond, Virginia, CBS channel. Creativity and flexibility are necessary conditions for Aubrey and his students to be able to excel.


The curriculum [determines what] we have to teach, but of course, there's no rule that says how you have to do it. So you can use or take any ideas from anywhere and put it together, as long as they learn it. That's all that really matters.


Many teachers like Aubrey find this creativity and flexibility to be an essential part of why they teach and why they keep teaching even when there are obstacles. Unfortunately, there are approaches to teaching and curriculum, some of them quite popular, that limit creativity and flexibility rather than capitalizing on them.

There are approaches to learning that are like playing a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach. For most musicians, playing Bach means reading music written 300 years ago. The notes and rhythms have been analyzed, edited and proofread by the time the modern musician is playing the piece. The expectation is that the player will simply read the written music, not needing to make any choices about notes or rhythms with just a little room for expressive decisions about dynamics and tempo.

To be clear, this produces great results when it comes to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I spent hours practicing, recording and producing the Bach trio you are currently listening to. For a certain type of audience in a certain context, this would be great.

Yet when I played the trio for some of my highly trained musical friends, they found it lacking, not because they detected any technical errors, but they simply didn't see a particular context that the piece would be interesting and engaging for.

But that's the thing. When playing Bach, the idea of bending it to the context or audience you are playing for is not in the approach.

Sometimes curriculum is presented in this way. Here is a fabulous piece of learning. Present it as it is. Don't distort this perfect work to meet the students in their context or situation. Make them bend to this preconceived idea of what great learning is.

Teachers and educational stakeholders sometimes approach teaching subjects like playing Bach. Jazz and specifically jazz in a live setting requires a very different approach. Rather than reading specific notes on a page, players are expected to understand the context of the piece as well as the context of the performance and audience, and create original expressions particular to their own experience. Aubrey and I got into this when he and I talked.


It's not always like the easiest thing to make it all work, but once you understand it then it comes out a little bit better. But again, even after you understand how things work, applying it is really the challenge in making it sound good too: making what you hear come out of your instrument and sound good.


So this means that instead of reading written music that may or may not engage the audience, a trained jazz musician can create on the spot a unique expression that fits the situation.

This is what great teachers do. Rather than reading a script that may or may not engage the students, they create unique expressions that fit the standards and make learning work for each student.

This is also why experience and teacher preparation programs are so important. When a jazz soloist plays, their thirty second solo might draw from 30 years of playing and listening. Likewise, when a skilled teacher is observed, the adjustments and improvisations they are doing are not born in that moment, but rather cultivated through years of training and experience.

This creativity and inventiveness is what drives teachers: the idea that when a child is not learning, there is more to be done. There is a limitless reserve of creativity and ingenuity for teachers to tap into to make learning happen.

If you are a teacher that is looking to have a long term career in education, remember this superpower. Be sure to put yourself in situations where you have the freedom to build your own solos and create the music that moves your students.

If you are a principal or other educational supervisor and you want to hold onto quality teachers, look for ways to build up their teaching repertoire and improvisational vocabulary without limiting their creativity.

This has been A Different EduPodcast with me, Bill Manchester. Special thanks to our guest Aubrey Smalls. To check out more of his work with students follow him on Twitter @Mr_SmallsMusic and on his website He just put together a new volume of 26 fun interactive songs for the elementary classroom. That is a great resource for teachers looking to be creative in their classrooms. If you enjoyed this podcast, please tell two friends and mention it on your social media pages.

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