Every so often, a teacher comes along that possesses the true spirit of learning. All children walking through their classroom doors have a gift. Sometimes those gifts are evident from day one. Other times they’re buried by problems at home, social difficulties, or academic struggles. No matter the hardships, these special educators go above and beyond the call of duty – developing programs that encourage students to dream, to take chances, and to believe in themselves. They have the power to make their students shine. New Voices MS 443 choral director Amy Musick embodies this spirit.
For the past six years, Dr. Musick has dedicated her talents to the students of MS 443 – inspiring thousands of children to raise their voices in song, grow academically, and even pursue humanitarian passions outside the walls of their South Slope school building.
This work has not gone unnoticed. Recently nominated for Life Changer of the Year, an award that honors to best in education, Dr. Musick’s nominee page is filled with praise from both parents and colleagues alike.
We recently caught up Dr. Musick to learn a bit more about her road to education, how she encourages students to sing, and what she hopes her middle schoolers will take away from their time at New Voices.
PSS: First of all, tell us a bit about yourself.
Amy Musick: I am a mother, wife, public school music teacher (13 years, 6 years at New Voices), New Yorker (15 years)/Brooklynite (7 years), summer camp owner (and cook), runner, yogi, vegan, bike commuter, and community gardener.
Has music always been a part of your life?
Yes! I grew up in a musical family who encouraged me to sing and pursue my studies of the flute. I decided after high school to study accounting and business in college (I love math!) and was a CPA for five years working at KPMG.
During this time I still had music in my life but it wasn’t enough, so I left that world behind, moved to NYC, and pursued teaching. I have never looked back and am so thankful that everyday I get to do what I love!
The New Voices website says that the goal of your chorus program is to stop students from saying “I can’t sing.” How often do you hear students say that, and how to you go about challenging those preconceived notions?
Sadly, most students – and adults – who say, “I can’t sing” are told that they can’t sing by someone who they respect. I hear it all the time and encourage my students to trust me and give it a try.
My class starts off in 6th grade with studying singing through the Elements of Music in a sequential way (beat, tempo, rhythm, meter, melody, harmony, dynamics, form, mood, timbre, texture), and starting the very first day, everyone is singing.
But doubts continue for many students. In fact, just this week my 6th graders started their “I Have A Dream Song Composition Project,” inspired by the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who we studied together in class. One student walked up to me and said, “I can’t write a song.” By asking a few questions and reconnecting him back to the work of Dr. King and our study of the Elements of Music, he wrote a verse without much trouble and was off and running.
Can anybody sing?
Yes – and I hope everyone does!
In what ways does choral study benefit students outside the music classroom?
The study of music – and all forms of art for that matter – benefit students in countless ways, from building confidence, independence, self-esteem, and focus to enhancing time-management, communication, and public speaking skills.
The physical and emotional benefits are also extensive as the study of art helps to promote healthy eating, exercise, body image, strength, and mental and emotional clarity.
The Common Core is such a hot topic in the realm of education these days – specifically the College and Career Readiness Attributes. I believe that the best way to support students in gaining these valuable attributes is to study music – or any art form – starting at a young age and consistently through their school years.
You’ve beautifully merged music and community service at New Voices. Tell us about some of the projects your students have worked on, and why it’s important to begin developing this humanitarian spirit at an early age.
I encourage students to see themselves as an instrument for change (yes, a musical perspective), and try to live that myself. Our school did not have a Green Team only a few years ago, now our Green Team is 20 student volunteers strong and they have beautified the school on both the inside (by starting a recycling and composting program) and outside (through their gardening and greening efforts).
We also did not have a structured technical theater program for interested students. We now have a team of 20 student Team Tech volunteers trained and running all of the school productions.
Students need time and encouragement to discover their passions, and then outlets to pursue them. I am very lucky to be at New Voices as the community of administration, staff, and parents have supported me in getting programs such as the Green Team and Team Tech up-and-running, and continue to celebrate the students involved.
As a school community, we are developing students that are able to see beyond themselves and into the world around them. As they leave New Voices, I hope they will carry this with them and continue to be world-changers.
I also connect my students to larger issues outside of the music classroom by creating projects that get students thinking about the power of music to invoke social change. As mentioned above, I have my 6th Graders writing “I Have A Dream” songs and already they are writing about issues ranging from women’s wage equality and racism, to global warming and bullying.
My Chorus Majors who I have for both 7th and 8th grade, compose musical PSA’s (public service announcements) about topics important to them. This year topics range from depression and eating disorders, to drinking and driving and gun violence.
The Chorus Majors also select a charity and oversee a fundraising campaign grounded in music for that charity (in the past students have selected St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, The Wolf Conservation Center, Make A Wish Foundation, and The All Stars Project), study music composed by and sung by important musicians, and my repertoire themes are always tied to a larger purpose.
For example, this spring our theme is “Heroes,” and students will reflect on, write about, and share stories about their own heroes. They will also sing songs about heroes, about how to be a hero, songs composed by heroes, songs sung by heroes, songs with hero in the title (I just added “Heroes” by David Bowie as a tribute), and more.
I try to always be conscious of choosing music that has a message that my students can carry with them beyond the classroom.
Congratulations on your nomination for Life Changer of the Year! What were your thoughts when you found out about the nomination?
Thank you, and wow, I am so honored. When I found out I was speechless and humbled (and honestly a bit embarrassed as I don’t like my photo posted – only photos of my students at work). As I read the comments I am in tears.
I don’t do the work to win awards – in fact I can’t even bring myself to forward the website link as it feels odd to me to celebrate my work, when I feel that my work is to celebrate my students.
What do you hope that students take away from your choral program?
Live life with purpose and whenever you can, SING!
Do you know a wonderful teacher that deserves some time in the spotlight? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.