Flipping the Switch: How does change happen?

Have you ever created a classroom moment that flipped the switch for one of your students? Where they understand something new all of a sudden? When you see their eyes open wide because they get it? If you have, I bet you’ve never forgotten the thrill.

Several years ago, when Aaron, my son, was about 12, we were back east in my hometown in upstate NY. I took him to meet my former math teacher, Mr. Pedley, who had a knack for getting people to see things differently.

While we were sitting together, I told Aaron, “Go ahead, ask Mr. Pedley any question you want about math.”

“Anything?” Aaron asked.


Aaron, a smart kid, thought for a minute and came up with a challenge. “How come math problems only have one right answer?”

Mr. Pedley was ready. “But that’s not true,” he said. “How many numbers are less than 20?”

Aaron just sat there with his mouth open. Then a huge grin spread across his face. Then and there, my son experienced a flip-of-the-switch. He was open to embracing a different view.
That was pretty cool to see in person.

Flash forward: Several years ago, a high school music teacher asked if I’d be willing to share my band’s lead charts. The teacher wanted his students to try something new: playing contemporary jazz tunes in his class that came from real recordings and real musicians.

“Really? You want your students to learn the music I wrote and recorded?”

That was fantastic! Not for my ego…although, trust me, I was really flattered…but because I’d never met a teacher who actually approached a working musician for fresh material to make music classes more fun and current. So cool!

Then I started volunteering at my son’s 7am high school jazz band, and to be honest, that wasn’t so cool. Because it felt like not much had changed since the high school music classes I took 30 years ago.

I started to wonder: what are we offering music students today that’s fresh? What are they getting that’s cool and contemporary but also educationally appropriate, grounded, and relevant? Do they get the chance to play sounds they would actually hear outside school right now? Music that’s culturally diverse enough to appeal to the wide range of nationalities of their friends in class?

The truth is, most music programs haven’t been able to diversify their musical offerings for middle and high school students. Everybody’s overstretched in time and funding, and it’s just plain hard to “flip the switch” and try something new. Most horn players never get to play a complete melody, and most musicians never get to play percussion instruments. And I’ve been to many high school concerts and festivals where if there are two keyboardists, or two guitarists, or 2 drummers, one is usually sitting out. (Were they sitting out half the year, in high school? I didn’t appreciate that thought.)

These are just a few of the reasons that I created the integrated content-plus-pedagogy programs of PlayTheGroove. I wanted to make it easy for even the most overloaded teacher to “Flip the Switch” and give their students the chance to experience what is happening today, globally in current jazz and world jams.

The “flip-the-switch” phenomenon goes even further, because the cognitive and motor skills that music brings out can help “flip the switch” to a richer appreciation of all the arts, of math, of critical thinking — the list goes on. Music is a gateway, and PlayTheGroove is about augmenting and enhancing the traditional repertoire and styles, as well as the options and possibilities that abound, like Social Emotional Learning (more on that later).

We want students to create music, not just play it. Process has a place in the classroom. Everyone has a voice and choice.

At the last part of a recent Bay area high school clinic in Northern California, I asked, “Can anyone suggest a different way to start this song?” After a long pause, a young man spoke up, “We can’t. We have to start it the way it’s written on the page and the recording.” And I said, “Who says we can’t do it differently?” Silence enveloped the room, but just for a moment. A student whispered, “What if we start with the bass?” “And then let’s add the drums,” added another. Before long we had a new arrangement. And when they played the song, they had to listen, listen hard, as each instrument, their instrument, blended in. They weren’t just playing the notes, they were creating music. That was the flip-the-switch moment… ideas flowed, the class saw new possibilities, and they glowed when they experienced the results. This is why I’m so excited about the PlayTheGroove approach. We’ve succeeded in creating an educationally sound, super-fun method that makes it simple to give your students a “flip-the-switch” moment. Use this method, and you’ll be able to inspire change in your students — and maybe even yourself — in ways you can’t imagine. Want to learn more? I invite you to check out Before I let you go — a question. Have you ever created a classroom moment that flipped the switch for one of your students? I bet you have…and I’d love to hear about it.
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