Music Workshop: filling a void

Portland-based music education program, which assists teachers in thousands of schools around the world, is expanding in scope and diversity, and helping schools cope with the pandemic’s challenges

Even though she’s not a professional musician, music made all the difference in Amy Richter’s life. When she was growing up in Beaverton in the late 1970s and ‘80s, her music-loving father, who frequently traveled for work, would bring back new albums —  classical, blues, country, bluegrass, rock — he’d pick up from Tower Records or Music Millennium, and play them for himself and his daughter. 

“That was our time to really connect,” Richter remembers. 

The ardor for music he ignited in her found more fuel in school and private lessons for voice and piano. Later diagnosed as dyslexic, she found that studying music helped her learn and succeed in ways conventional classwork couldn’t. Richter sang in many musical theater productions before graduating from Beaverton High School, then attended Whittier College on a voice scholarship, double majoring in music and psychology.

“Music helped me be successful in school and fueled my creativity,” she says. “It gave me strength and a lot of confidence.”  

That confidence powered a successful career — not in music therapy, as she’d intended when she went to college, but in marketing, after she scored a plum job offer right out of school and rapidly ascended.

Founder Amy Richter teaching Music Workshop at Raleigh Hills K-8 school in 2013. Photo: Amira Dughri.

Then, about a decade ago, a couple of big changes prompted a new course. Around the time Richter’s children were moving into elementary school, her father died. “I’d been doing some soul searching after my father passed,” reminiscing about how important the love of music he and her school studies instilled in her had been in her own success, culminating at Adidas. And she looked forward, envisioning similar inspiration in her own two young children.

But as Richter checked the course offerings at their school, and then at others around the state and nation, she realized that schools, beset by a steady relative decline in public investment, sparked by voter-initiated property tax limitations, no longer offered her children the kinds of musical opportunities that had so enriched her education and life. “We had so many instruments to play with,” she says. “School music teachers are amazing people and have so many gifts to give, but they’re more limited on time and resources than when I was growing up.” 

Realizing that “the job I was in wasn’t moving the dial in my own community, ” she decided to do something to help. In 2012, Richter founded the Portland-based Music Workshop nonprofit organization to augment music education by supplying music programs offering online music programming to K-8 schools completely free of charge. Those supplemental offerings evidently filled a real educational need. After propagating through other regional schools, word about the little made-in-Oregon program soon spread through various partnerships, social media and word of mouth from other teachers and school administrators. 

Today, the organization says, more than 3,600 schools (a tenth of them in Oregon) serving over 1.5 million students (mostly elementary and middle school) in 60 countries use MW resources. Over the years, the programming has vastly expanded in geographical, cultural and technological scope. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, 1,000 schools have signed up for MW virtual classroom programs, and the organization just launched an upgraded platform for both classroom and distance learning. 

Also this month, it’s released a second course (devoted to Latin American music) in a new series that brings students sounds and insights from the rich musical cultures outside the narrow European-based models that have long dominated American music education. Funded by grants and personal and corporate donations, Music Workshop next month hosts an online fundraiser for yet another course, this one in African music. Now that the pandemic has devastated in-person learning, the Music Workshop’s online programs seemed poised to go, well, viral. 

Context & Connection

Richter had a homegrown model for a supplemental music program: Art Literacy, created by Chehalem elementary school parent Louise Gustafson in 1980, enabled parent volunteers to enhance their schools’ courses in the history of visual arts. A response to schools’ already-dwindling arts instruction, the parent-run slide-show equipped course focused on a few artists (Monet, Van Gogh, Wyeth et al), explicating their styles and the context the art originated in, and assigning students to create a project in each style. 

“When I started teaching art literacy,” Richter remembers, “I thought I’d like to start teaching one that was music related — giving kids info in big brush strokes so they can choose their own musical path. If we don’t educate them about what’s out there, it’s hard to know what motivates you. That’s what I was doing growing up: seeking my musical path.”

She noticed that Arts Literacy students were drawn to the stories surrounding visual art even more than the how-to instructions about technique. But music instruction, even during her own school days, lacked that kind of context. “The reality is there isn’t a lot of history and appreciation in school music classes,” she says. “It’s more basic instruments and theory. It wasn’t until I got into college that I was able to do any deep dives into rock and jazz history.”

Accordingly, Music Workshop courses don’t just talk about music. “We give them the historical context about, say, how an amp was created, who did this, why did they do it?” Richter explains. “Or with Native American traditional music, showing them how a drum was made, then how it’s used in a smudging ceremony. Now it’s not just a drum anymore. Context gives them this deeper level of connection to the drum — who makes it, how it’s made. That gives them a much deeper connection into the music. That level of connection is what’s needed for kids to be interested in wanting to know more and move forward. When you provide context and connection, it opens up the world.”

Richter delivers Music Workshop DVDs to Beaverton’s Sexton Mountain School in 2014. Photo: Amy Hall.

Learning to play an instrument requires lots of practice, mistakes, and commitment, so Music Workshop courses approach performance obliquely, from various enticing directions that show students what the payoff might be. For example, they might show a video of the entertaining Piano Guys playing pop hits and coaxing unusual percussive sounds from their instruments, or a saxophone beat boxer. “We’re getting them to understand the possibilities,” Richter says, “so that when they start learning an instrument, it can be frustrating, but they realize, ‘When I do learn it, I could beat box too.’” 

Learning and Evolving

It’s not just the students who are learning. A critical element in Music Workshop: feedback — the one requirement MW insists on from schools, as the courses are otherwise free of charge. The program has evolved based on what Richter (who teaches the courses herself) and the other teachers have experienced over the past eight years. (About 98% of the teachers are also the school’s music teacher, with the rest being home school teachers or specialty teachers at schools without music teachers.) 

Feedback inspired the team to develop shorter versions for the younger elementary students, and to add more thought-provoking questions appropriate for older ones, resulting in the current three-level elementary school curriculum. They quickly realized that the content was so rich that it could appeal to older students, even adults, too. New, age-appropriate Music Workshop classes complemented middle school band and choir as well as general music courses. MW staff added “musical movement minutes” that allowed  students to stand up, stretch, move and “get their wiggles out” — and then limited them to only younger (K-5) students, when it didn’t play so well with middle schoolers, who generally worry a lot more about fitting in, seeming cool, and not being embarrassed in front of their peers. 

 Musical Movement Minute at Raleigh Hills Elementary. Photo: Michael Ingram

Music Workshop has also advanced technologically. Beginning with a single video component used in elementary grade levels, which Richter shuttled on DVDs to a few Beaverton and Portland area schools, the program now offers 21 online courses , from piano and guitar lessons to how to work in the music business. They’re available for its primary audience of conventional school classrooms, as well as home and charter schools. The web platform, now in its fifth iteration, is continually upgraded to match student needs and technological development. A grant from Portland’s Laika Studios produced a new animated maestro figure, then a Maestro Girl who’s voiced by an actual Music Workshop student from the Beaverton School District. 

Cultural Diversity

 Much traditional music instruction still privileges centuries old music by dead white European masters who have little relevance to today’s young Americans. Music Workshop’s first program started out with that quintessentially American music, jazz, even featuring videos of Portland’s own jazz/pop star Esperanza Spalding singing and wielding her bass. Jazz’s origin story crosses multiple subject areas including history and sociology. 

“We thought music from America would be a great starting point to really talk through cultural connections — how so many different groups of people came together to create this music,” Richter explains. “Jazz tells such a great story, and it connects with R&B and rock” and other popular music that evolved out of it. 

 Again responding to feedback from teachers, who noted that many students didn’t feel represented by the initial educational design’s European focus, the program two years ago embarked on creating a new Culture Series to share with students the world’s wonderfully rich musical multiplicity. “Music is part of how we’re going to connect as a global society and with the many cultures that represent us,” Richter says. “Not only is it important for everybody to learn information about history and the other things that make up other cultures, it’s vitally important for students to feel represented in the classroom. So our culture series responds to the importance of multiple cultures in education. They learn about respecting other cultures, and for students from different cultures, it can provide a sense of belonging to their own cultural heritages.” 

Culturally diverse programming helps advance other educational goals as well. Richter cites studies showing that classrooms that employ culture-based educational strategies enhance student well-being and provide a deeper sense of connection to their school.

A natural place to start, in a region that originally boasted a rich, diverse indigenous population: Native American traditional music. Cultural advisers Cornel Pewewardy, a longtime Portland State University faculty member, and Bobby Mercier, Cultural Specialist from Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, helped MW staff design the initial course, which  has already earned positive feedback. “The Native American culture doesn’t get a lot of attention in our curriculum, so the kids were enthralled with the videos,” reports Kansas Argonia Junior High teacher Natalie Shirley. “Many of the classes that I taught this to had a rich discussion of differences from nation to nation,” says Rich Crouch, who teaches at Washington’s Utsalady Elementary School and Elger Bay Elementary School. “The video did a great job of showing a wide variety of dress, traditions, and music.” 

Richter hopes eventually to explore music from different regions across the country to provide a greater range of representation of sounds and instruments from America’s extremely diverse indigenous cultures. “We’d love to do a much deeper dive with the recognized tribes in Oregon,” she says.

The newest course, which debuted last month, introduces students to Latin American music and incorporates input from three different expert advisers representing the cultures of Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Course development proceeds through an initial outline, research, writing, and then several rounds of feedback on script and images. 

Next, MW is about to start developing the latest Culture Series entry: music of Africa. On September 20, it’s hosting an online fundraiser that aims to raise $90,000 to fund the creation and implementation of its forthcoming African Music courses.

Adapting to the Pandemic

This year’s pandemic has spurred further, faster development. With classrooms dormant, remote learning like Music Workshop courses would seem to offer a natural advantage to educators. “Because we’re an online program, we were able to move very quickly,” Richter says, “but we didn’t quite know how to move. School music teachers don’t teach online. It was a new experience for all of us.” 

Richter’s longtime colleague and MW Program Facilitator Amy Hall quickly pivoted into extended conversations with teachers to discern their needs, then a “deep dive on learning Canvas, Google Classroom” and other learning management platforms and systems. They created some training videos for teachers in the new technologies — then had to reformat he program components  in lower resolution versions that wouldn’t choke some less-capable systems. They created downloadable forms that teachers could use to access any MW courses, and made other on-the-fly adjustments. And they did it all while trying to cope with a massive influx of schools — 1,200 in the past four months — suddenly desperate for help their physical schools couldn’t provide. 

Music Workshop Maestro Girls. Photo: Michael Ingram

Or maybe they could. No one’s quite sure whether or how much instruction will be happening in school this fall and how much online, and the answer may change depending on ever-updating epidemiological numbers and pharmacological research. That meant creating high-res videos appropriate for in-class learning, and low-res versions for online instruction. Schools can choose which ones suit the moment and their particular circumstances. But teaching music, even more than most other subjects, is still going to present tough challenges and plenty of unknowns to Oregon educators this year. 

“There’s a lot we don’t know, but we know singing isn’t an option for now,” Richter says. “Music teachers aren’t teaching in regular classrooms. They’re working off a cart. What instruments can you bring in? Teachers are a resilient group. Music teachers especially are always on the chopping block. They’re always figuring out how to do so much with so little. Our courses are such a vital part of their educational design that we hope we can give them the support and student connections they need.”

Connection is another victim of the pandemic, and Richter believes it’s something music — and Music Workshop — can facilitate. “Music is universal because it connects us,” she says, noting how people have been singing to each other from balconies from New York to Italy throughout the crisis. 

Testimonials supplied by Richter suggest that teachers have appreciated the help. “I used this video for my first distance learning lesson for 300 4th & 5th graders,” wrote a music teacher in Maine. “The students’ responses were enthusiastic! They loved seeing the instruments being played in the different parts of the world and when they answered my questions, they used language from the video.”

Looking Ahead

Music Workshop will continue to evolve regardless of viral circumstances. It plans to continue to expand beyond its growing presence in Australia, Canada, Asia and beyond. While all courses are currently in English, they’ve been talking about someday translating them into different languages, a significant investment. Richter also wants to create still more programming for elementary and middle schools, and further develop distance learning materials to meet teachers’ changing needs. She also recognizes that learning involves more than knowledge and performance skills, and is working with an advisory group comprising teachers from around the country to determine “what additional materials we could provide to support social and emotional learning, especially with so many students now feeling not connected to their classmates and schools.”

Richter, whose own children are nearing the end of their middle school and high school years, respectively, expects Music Workshop to be needed for a long time. “There hasn’t been a lot of support around reforming the current educational paradigm, and adapting to how students learn today,” she says. Comparing their world from 40 years ago to now — it’s different. There’s not the financial support to [make] music education more relevant and connect with those students in a way that is impactful.” 

Even if Oregon does start to improve its under-investment in music education, Music Workshop courses will be there to complement school offerings, not substitute for them. “Our program is a supplemental program,” she says. “We never built it to replace any music teachers, but really just to help supplement their programs and give them a program extension into history and appreciation. We hear from teachers all the time that for them to do a little bit of what we’re doing would take them hours and hours, so they’re very grateful for what we can provide. We’re filling a void in providing something that should always have been there.”

For information about Music Workshop’s September 20 virtual fundraiser, check the website.

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