Teaching emerging music courses at the secondary level

A new course offered by Dr. Erik Johnson explores music 'outside of the box' with collaborations with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, Mariachi bands, and more.

CSU is offering a new class, Teaching Secondary Emerging Music Methods, taught by Dr. Erik Johnson. In response to the fact that only twenty percent of PK-12 grade students join a band, orchestra, or choir, this class embraces the broadest term ‘music’ to include music education outside of the traditional box in an attempt to include more students.

Dr. Johnson has witnessed emerging music ensembles firsthand, and would like to prepare teachers for every possible scenario they may encounter in the classroom.

“It’s always been a part of what I’ve paid attention to in trying to make music more accessible for students outside of band, orchestra, and choir,” Johnson says. “I realized that training in how to teach these types of courses is very limited and thought, ‘We need to take the bull by the horns and create some focused energy around the pedagogy for introductory music courses that are cool.'”

Dr. Johnson has invited guest artists into the classroom to help expose CSU music education students to different curricula and ways of teaching, including Colorado Symphony Orchestra’s education manager, Breanna McCaughey who shared the orchestra's 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ curriculum, which is based on work by composer Omar Thomas. The CSO offers the curriculum that combines spoken word poetry, music, and dance for free to schools, including to CSU, and students have been invited to attend a retreat with CSO musicians to learn more about the program.

Another guest was alumni Sebastian Adams, (B.M., Music Education ‘18), and his ‘emerging music’ group, Timberline PK-8 School Mariachi. The special performance, put on by pre-teens, transformed the room and transported the audience to another place. The young students played mariachi guitar, strumming difficult patterns in tandem with ease and confidence that would be difficult even for older students. These kids had practiced, and not just for a competition or a school concert. It was obvious that they truly loved mariachi, and wanted to do it right.

The performance impressed the CSU students who attended.

"I was really impacted by the love and appreciation the students had for the class,” said Maya Reno (B.M.E., ‘24). “They expressed how they loved having a class offered to them that was connected to Latinx culture since they don't often see that. Being from a Hispanic community and background myself, I really connected with that feeling. It goes to show how providing a culturally relevant class to students can impact their education.”

As part of their visit, the middle school students offered instrument-specific masterclasses where CSU students had the opportunity to learn stylistic techniques unique to mariachi such as vibrato, strumming patterns, and chords, picking up instruments that they had only previously seen pictures of.

Adams inherited the mariachi program during the pandemic as everything went virtual, and was lucky to have the extra time needed to learn these new instruments, such as the guitarrón, the vihuela, and the specific styles and techniques unique only to mariachi. As he stood before his ensemble, you could see his commitment to honoring this art form.

“In any other style I don’t like the wide vibrato, even in opera,” Adams said. “But when I hear a singer with wide vibrato in a mariachi band, the only way I can describe it is 'perfection.'”

In addition to his own preparation for class, Adams relied on student guidance and approached the experience with an open mind and the utmost respect for different cultures. “I went into the class saying, ‘I would like for us to lean on each other,’ and the students were teaching me. I have the information on basic music fundamentals to guide them, everything else is up to them.”

Even though the Teaching Secondary Emerging Music Methods class was not offered when Adams was at CSU, he feels fortunate to have the musical training that he did. “I can’t stress enough how grateful I am that my musicianship was enforced at CSU. I could lean on my theory and ear training. I want to praise CSU for holding their standards high – it really has paid off."

Sebastian Adams Mariachi Ensemble
Sebastian Adams (sitting with guitar) leads his mariachi band from Timberline PK-8 School in a guest performance and seminar at CSU’s Organ Recital Hall.