New Beginnings at SafePlace: A Reflection

By Lucy Bergin
Armstrong Community Music School

February 11, 2016

I had heard about the warmth and kindness of the faculty and staff at SafePlace in East Austin, but experiencing it first-hand came as a lovely surprise. These people truly care about their students and keep the students’ emotional well-being and healing as the priority in and out of the classroom.

On the first day of teaching music classes at the UT Charter School at SafePlace, I was a bit nervous. Elisa, the lead teacher, and I had worked out lesson plans, but wanted to be ready to change things at the drop of a hat depending on what our classes were like. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect. As families move through the shelter, the class sizes fluctuate from week to week and even day to day.

Elisa and I wheeled out the cart of colorful musical instruments and toys into the first class, 4th and 5th grade. We had six students, five girls and one boy, and they waited for us patiently and quietly, on their best behavior. Their teacher is strict with them, but I learned quickly that she has a heart of gold for her students. Elisa started the class off with a warm-up dance to a fun and fast musical track, and I watched as lights came into the students’ eyes. There were some smiles and giggles, some enthusiastic arm movements, and we all relaxed. I brought out the drums next, starting with the silver doumbeks, and passed them out to each student to start our drum circle. This would be our name-learning activity, but it became much more than that. Each student created a rhythm using the syllables in their name. After going around the circle, we put the whole composition together in one long string of rhythms, playing faster and faster. As the challenge increased, I saw concentration, determination, and happiness on the faces of the students. Some smiled when we got to their name. I loved that most of all.

LB headshot 2-bwLucy Bergin began formal music instruction at the age of seven, and moved on at the age of fourteen to study vocal and flute performance at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School in Boston. A double major of music performance and German literature at Wellesley College, she studied privately in the studios of Suzanne Stumpf and Gale Fuller, performed as a soloist with the Wellesley College Choir, Chamber Singers, and Chamber Music Ensemble, and directed the Tupelo’s, Wellesley’s original a cappella group. As a professional, Lucy has studied voice with teachers Phyllis Hoffman and Pamela Dellal and maintains an active teaching studio of voice, flute, and guitar students. Fluent in French and German, Lucy adores music from Europe and the Caribbean, but she will also look for opportunities to bring Gershwin and jazz into the classroom.

Before leaving the 4th and 5th grade classroom, we asked our students what they would want to learn in music class. The answers were sincere and simple: “I want to do more dancing,” “I want to sing,” and my favorite: “I want to learn to play the tambourine.”

The 2nd and 3rd grade classroom was buzzing with energy and excitement when they heard us pushing the music cart down the hallway. They had seen us in the 4th and 5th grade room and were ready to get their chance to play all of the drums. There are three very rambunctious boys in this class, and two very polite and quiet girls, so it was a very different environment than the demure 4th and 5th graders! We danced with scarves and played all of the drums, and even the quietest student gave the faintest of smiles when she played the doumbek. One student, spent all of music class on the other side of the room working on a puzzle. Elisa saw him glancing up every now and then to check out what we were doing. He didn’t choose to participate, but he was interested.

Our last stop was the kindergarten and 1st grade classroom. These little ones were wriggly with excitement. Their teacher danced along with us and played with the shaky eggs, and wanted his students to remain polite and patient as we handed out the instruments. There was only one little girl in the room with five very loud and excited boys, and she did not want to dance as much as the others. She did want to play with the instruments, though, and that brought out a small smile. The class was sad to say goodbye; they wanted to play those instruments for a much longer time.

As we packed up the instruments and returned the cart to its closet, various teachers and staff members smiled at Elisa and me and pulled us aside to tell us how glad they are to have us with them. It was amazing to see how the faculty and staff were all so grateful to have this new music class for their students. It only took a few shy faces turned to smiles to have convinced me fully that this was work worth doing, but to hear it from the staff was a huge vote of confidence and support. I was already excited for the next week of music class, and my heart was full as I drove through the double security gates and back into the city.

February 18, 2016

This week, I taught classes on my own. I was excited to see all of the kids, and when I showed up, I could tell they were excited to see me, and the instruments. My plan for the 4th and 5th grade class was to cater to their requests for more singing and dancing. We did a vocal warm-up together along with some stretching and movement, the things I do with the Youth Chamber Singers at ACMS as well as my own voice students in each lesson, and then we got to work learning “Funga Alafia.” I first encountered this song as part of the holiday collection at Armstrong, and had taught it to the choir in the fall. It’s a Nigerian song of welcome and peace, and the class learned it quickly and eagerly. We added some basic dance movements to it, and they really started to get into it. A few teacher aides passed by the classroom and joined in too. That really made the students smile and laugh, so I invited the teacher aides to stay with us for the drumming section of our class. The students were better at drumming than the teachers, which brought about another round of giggles. We ended our class singing a lullaby called “Su La Li.”

I moved down the hall to the 2nd and 3rd grade classroom, and this week the little boy who had sat with a puzzle all of the first class, was excited and ready to participate. That made me instantly happy. They were anxious to play with the instruments and after a class of high energy activities, I decided to give a lullaby a try. We moved to the far side of their classroom and sat on a rug with a picture of the map of the world, and I instructed the six children to sit and close their eyes while they listened to the music. The four boys found this very challenging, and their teacher tried to help them calm down and pay attention, but I wasn’t ruffled. It will take time, but learning to be calmed and soothed by music is valuable. The two little girls closed their eyes and kept them closed for the whole song. After class, the teachers for the 2nd – 3rd and 4th – 5th classes pulled me aside to mention what a big change they have already seen in their students. They stressed to me that, while I might not notice it, they truly have noticed a difference and are so glad that the students now get to have music class. One teacher shared with me that one of the girls in her class had struggled that morning and what helped her get through it was the reminder that it was music day.

When I walked into the last class of the day, I found them quietly sitting on their alphabet rug, trying their best to be patient. They had been prepared, and the teacher wanted them to display good behavior in order for them to play all of the instruments. He even calmed me down with his soft manner of speaking and his bountiful patience. We sang hello to each other, and I met one new student, another quiet little girl. We used our hands and thumbs to make snails and mice. We played maracas and sang along to Taj Majal’s “Funky Bluesy ABCs” after a rendition of the traditional ABC song. I’m getting to know everyone’s names better, and I’m starting to get more smiles from the quieter girls in the room. It all takes time for us to get used to each other, and I’m happy to be settling in to the rhythm of SafePlace.

February 26, 2016

It wasn’t my usual day to be at SafePlace, but I was lucky to be asked back today to help with a special event put on by the 4th and 5th grade class. In honor of Black History Month, they prepared a fun and informative presentation. It began with a “live museum.” Each student became a living statue of a significant African American. Museum “visitors” had to push the button next to each student in order to hear about their life. I met Rosa Parks, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Muhammed Ali, Serena Williams, and Gabby Douglas. All of the younger classes and the teachers and teacher aids passed through the exhibit, and then the 4th and 5th graders transformed into musical performers. After seeing her class learn “Funga Alafia” the week prior, their teacher had come right up to me to see if I could help them perform it in the Black History program. She loved the song and thought it would be a perfect and wonderful addition to the morning. So, I drove over on Friday morning, and we rehearsed it for 10 minutes before the show started.

Once everyone was seated and quiet after their museum tour, we sang and danced our song of welcome. A few of the students’ moms were present, and one took a video. Some of the teacher aides who had drummed with us tried to clap and snap along too. Everyone loved it, the performers most of all. Before I left, two little girls introduced me to their mom as “THEIR music teacher!” and the classroom teacher proudly exclaimed that after only two weeks of music class, her kids “had already produced something!” She said they are always fighting against the assumption that schools like these “don’t produce anything.” However, it is important to remember that the teaching at SafePlace has much more to accomplish than statistics and grades. They are caring for and helping support children who are dealing far too early with heavy and difficult emotions and life circumstances. What the school “produces” can’t be measured on the same scale at all, because each time a child decides to participate or even smiles during music class, it is something that should be celebrated and held up as an achievement for the school as a whole.

I said my goodbyes and dragged myself away with a cookie for the road and another very full heart.

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Posted in Music for Life