Julia Knoerr | Jefferson Elementary’s after school Music Club

Julia Knoerr is a senior at Westridge School for Girls and studies cello with Elizabeth Pattengale at PCM. She started the after school Music Club at Jefferson Elementary School as a part of Westridge’s Community Outreach Program in her Junior Year.

As the fall of my Junior year approached, I contemplated the various ways I could “fill an unmet need in my community and create a lasting impact,” as my school’s course catalog instructed. I knew I liked working with children, as each of my previous volunteer experiences always somehow circled back to the classroom. I also knew that I enjoyed music, as it has been a major part of my experience growing up, with weekly piano and cello lessons at PCM and participation in various choirs. What I didn’t know was how I could combine these interests and somehow turn them into the long-awaited Community Action Project (CAP), my school’s new solution to the community service graduation requirement.

As I neared the three October days set aside for CAP work, I decided to start reaching out to organizations in my community in order to find a place for a project. I began with a visit to Jackson Elementary School and was offered a window into Pasadena Unified School District’s (PUSD) after school LEARNs program; however, it didn’t seem very feasible to incorporate music into their program at the time. So, I turned to PCM, where I have been taking instrument lessons since I was eight years old, and I wandered into the welcoming arms of Rachael Doudrick, the chair of both the Young Musicians and Outreach departments.

 

Mrs. Doudrick introduced me to Jefferson Elementary School, a Title I (at risk) school a few blocks away, where PCM already had a young musicians program going during the school day. We brainstormed options for bringing music into the LEARNs program, and with the help of Vanessa Ixta, the Jefferson LEARNs coordinator, the after school Music Club was born. Because Jefferson didn’t have easily accessible instruments, we decided a choir would be the best way to go. However, before I could actually jump into the classroom, I spent months working on lesson plans, meeting with Mrs. Doudrick and Ms. Ixta, and searching for songs and games to bring to my new class.

Finally, in April of 2016, I embarked on the journey of becoming a music teacher for first and second grade students, most of whom had never participated in choral singing before. With the help of Ryan Dewberry, a PCM piano student who offered to serve as an accompanist and assistant, I introduced a group of 20 plus students to the experience of singing in a group. They learned new warm-ups, deciphered tricky rhythms, and practiced their listening skills.

Following along with the LEARNs semester’s theme of the environment (for Earth Day), I selected “This Pretty Planet,” a short children’s tune about the Earth’s beauty. We discussed the importance of Earth Day in connection with the song, and I enjoyed seeing my passion for the environment tie into the Music Club. Not only was I helping these kids learn about music and collaboration, but I was also encouraging them to think about what it means to become responsible citizens of the planet.

Each Friday for a month and a half, I attempted to share the love of singing that I have developed through the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and various school choirs with this new group of young students. However, we were almost immediately faced with a challenge: preparing for a fast-approaching showcase at the end of May.

For the first few weeks, the students understandably struggled to combine accurate rhythms with correct pitches, softly mumbling through the lyrics and staring down at their papers. I tried to think back to my own early days in choir, before I was fully literate in music theory or had an idea of how to sing with a group. Though at times tedious, we repeated difficult measures and looped the song many times until everyone finally got the hang of it. By the time May 26th rolled around, I was really beginning to see all of the hard work pay off.

 

Even in the short span of a month and a half, I noticed a major change in the kids. What began as a very tentative group attempting to follow along shifted to a loud, confident choir. As the date of the showcase approached, they grew more determined to master the song. After extra rehearsals and logistics practice, parents filed into the auditorium to see their kids’ efforts in many areas of the after school program. We demonstrated a scale and a warm-up before launching into “This Pretty Planet.” While they might not have quite reached mastery, the kids beamed as they stood spread out across the risers, showing off their new singing skills for their families.

Reflecting back on the first session, I realized the importance of keeping an open mind and taking one day at a time. Often my lesson plans ended up crumpled at the bottom of my bag, and I instead chose to respond to the kids’ progress as we went along. We might not have made it to full canon singing, but we did share a sense of collaboration and an interest in trying something new, both valuable life skills.

Serving as a music teacher was something entirely new to me, and it was a difficult, yet incredibly rewarding experience. I learned a lot from my time at Jefferson last Spring, and I hope that the first and second graders will remember their participation in Music Club and maintain an interest singing and music in the coming years.

I am incredibly thankful to Mrs. Rachael Doudrick for her constant willingness to help out and for her wonderful resources, to Ms. Vanessa Ixta for welcoming me into the Jefferson LEARNs program, and to Ryan Dewberry for being such a flexible assistant.

The Jefferson After School Music Club will continue this Spring.