Music in Our Schools, A Music Educator Reflects on Her Career of Making Music in School

March is Music in Our Schools month so KDP is sharing a blog from Kara Barbee. Kara is a music educator in Cincinnati, Ohio, currently in her fourteenth year of teaching. She graduated magna cum laude from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and earned her master’s degree from VanderCook College of Music, in Chicago, Illinois. She taught for twelve years in the Winton Woods City School District and is now the Music Director at Aiken New Tech High School, part of Cincinnati Public Schools. Kara performs on clarinet with the Southwest Ohio Symphonic Band and sings with the Young Professionals Choral Collective.


I’ve always enjoyed reflecting on my teaching and learning experiences. Here are some of my reflections on how I’ve arrived at where I am today as an educator.

When I was in college, at Miami University, I was interested in being an undergraduate assistant for my favorite music theory professor. He accepted my request, but said he didn’t need any help with those classes. He wanted me to assist him with 20th Century Music, which was a 400 and master’s level course. I explained that I had just started my regular music history classes and really didn’t know anything in the curriculum, so I didn’t understand how I would be able to help with this class. He assured me that I would be fine.

We met a few times before the course start date, he gave me a huge binder full of information and a key to his office filled with an amazing vinyl collection. I felt like a regular student on the first day of class, except that I was the youngest and most were working on their master’s degrees. After class, my professor asked me how I thought it went and when I would like to start teaching. I told him that I thought it went well and that I would be willing to teach whenever he’d like me to. He handed me a record, Charles Ives “The Unanswered Question,” and said “you’re teaching on Wednesday.”

I studied harder and spent more time in the library preparing for this course than anything I’d ever worked on before. I wasn’t even getting actual credits for being an undergraduate assistant. What motivated me the most was that I was having to teach the material. And if I was going to be teaching it, I had to really know what I was talking about.

So this brings me to some of my favorite projects. I’ve been to a number of professional development workshops and conferences, most of which were based on core classes. I have always enjoyed learning and advocating for music being a connection to all other disciplines. When I first started teaching, about fourteen years ago, I remember attending a conference about project-based learning. As I was introduced to projects from core subjects, I began to brainstorm how I could bring projects into music classes.

The idea that I mulled around the most was having my beginning band students teach their parents how to play their instruments for their first concert. I had this thought on the back burner for a number of years until I was working on my master’s degree and needed an idea for my research project. I figured that if I was ever going to put this into practice, I should go for it as my master’s project in hopes that my gut instinct on the power of teaching as a learning tool could be supported by research.

Just as I had thought, I found a lot of supporting research and my data collection showed the impact that teaching others had on my students’ playing abilities, their attitudes toward learning, and their communication skills. It also had the added bonuses of involving the parents and educating them on how hard it is to play an instrument. Plus, I’ve never heard a beginning band sound better than after their parents squeak and squawk trying to play “Hot Cross Buns!”

At the core of project-based learning is making connections to the real world and having students show their learning through authentic assessments that adults in your discipline would face. Of the many projects we’ve done, my favorite would be traveling with my middle school band to Nashville, Tennessee, to record at Third Man Records. We had participated in Solo & Ensemble and Large Group Adjudicated Events every year, but knowing that what they performed on that day would be recorded forever (or as long as vinyl can be played) took their performance skills to another level and they felt like “real” musicians.

After twelve years in the same district, two years ago I decided to change schools and teach at a project-based school called Aiken New Tech, which is part of Cincinnati Public Schools.
Another reason that I decided to go to Aiken was because they had all but lost their music department. There were less than a handful of working instruments, a music library that could fit in a bread box, and very few students that could read music (my first year there were 3!). Needless to say, this was a huge challenge, but I also saw this as an amazing opportunity, not only for me, but for my students. Want to talk about real world problems in the music industry – this is a perfect example!

Since moving to Aiken New Tech, the students and I have found people willing to donate instruments, their time, food, and performance opportunities. Students have started figuring out songs that they would like to play and we work on being able to write them down so they can be played for years to come. We have brainstormed ways to raise funds to be able to purchase uniforms, instruments, music, and all of the things that go into growing a music program. We’ve had a lot of help along the way, too. We have an extremely supportive principal, two dedicated alumni assistants, and a business partnership with GE that has helped us raise money and collect used instruments. But isn’t that how things work in the adult world, too? You have to reach out to those that have an interest in what you’re doing and then see how those connections can help you accomplish the task at hand.

My first year at Aiken (last year), I had three students on drums, along with myself, for the first pep assembly. Now, I have over 40 students in the Pep Band and we perform at football and basketball games, and I just found out a few days ago that we will be marching in the Red’s Opening Day Parade. This year we will be hosting our first Talent Showcase, that was organized by the general music classes as one of their projects. It will feature all of the performing ensembles as well as any student or community member that makes the audition. We have started an after school choir and we have been selected to perform as part of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s Project 38, where we are telling the story and themes of Macbeth through modern music. This Spring we’ll perform our adaptation at Memorial Hall, in downtown Cincinnati, and also at the CSC’s Revel and Feast celebration.

I had no idea that we would be this far along after such a short amount of time, but I think part of that is because the students are working right alongside me. We’re in this together and it is as much their program as it is mine. They know the work they are doing is authentic and the types of things that “real” musicians do.

When I decided to take the job at Aiken, I did some research and found out that the school was named after Charles Aiken and his two sons, all of which were music educators. There is a bust of Charles Aiken at Cincinnati’s Music Hall as he is thought to be the reason that music education became a part of our school system in Cincinnati. I feel more connected to my school and to my mission because of this history and I hope that we can continue the vision that the Aiken family established.

One thought on “Music in Our Schools, A Music Educator Reflects on Her Career of Making Music in School

  1. Patricia N Aiken says:

    Thank you for your Blog. It is wonderful that Aiken has such a dedicated music teacher!! I am Patricia Aiken, great granddaughter of Charles Aiken. Louis Aiken was my grandfather, and Walter, my great uncle. I am a retired violinist and teacher. It warms my heart to hear the Aiken tradition continues at the school! Thank you again.

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