Why music - and teachers - matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona's top teachers
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Why music – and teachers – matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona’s top teachers

Margie Looney

As her students prepare for the Gila Valley String Showcase later this week, Margie Looney, orchestra teacher at Willcox Middle and High Schools, said music changes students’ lives for the better.

Looney, who has taught in Willcox for the past five years, is the 2014 Cochise County Teacher of the Year and the 2014 Arizona Rural Teacher of the Year. She was recently named an ambassador of excellence by the Arizona Educational Foundation and was a finalist for their prestigious Teacher of the Year award.

Why music - and teachers - matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona's top teachers MargieLooneyOrchestraHP2

Margie Looney, center, with her Willcox Middle School orchestra students.

Looney also credits her middle school music teacher for instilling a sense of confidence that has helped her succeed.

“Music helps children develop language and reasoning abilities in addition to life skills such as responsibility, discipline, and sensitivity,” Looney said. “Music is a tool to help students be creative, work together for a common goal and is a life-long gift which they can enjoy and share with others.”

Those skills will be on display Thursday evening at the Safford Center for the Arts where music students from the Gila Valley and Willcox will perform together is an orchestra four times as large as usual.

“That rich string orchestra sound, which students will be a part of, is inspiring to hear and play with,” Looney said. “I expect this event to be one out of many opportunities which continue to motivate students to be a part of orchestra and love the sound they make when they play their instrument in a group setting.”

Why music - and teachers - matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona's top teachers MargieLooneyStringsHP3Also, research has shown that music education can help close the achievement gap between low- and high-income students, and that children who participate in school musical ensembles have lower incidences of drug and alcohol abuse, Looney said.

Looney said she has seen how music has brought the Willcox community together as students perform at churches and local events.

“Students are motivated to achieve success, parents and students are excited to be a part of an outstanding musical ensemble and work together to ensure progress in and outside of school,” Looney said. “Children who would otherwise not talk to each other are playing beautiful music together and are proud of their collaborations.”

Why music - and teachers - matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona's top teachers MargieLooneyHighSchoolALLParents, administrators, communities, school board members and politicians should remember that music is an important part of our children’s education, Looney said

“It is vital that we work together so the gift of music is available to all and not a lost art in our public schools.”

Q: What led you to become a music teacher?

A: As a seventh-grade violist I was placed in the lower-level orchestra of my junior high. After the first week of rehearsals, my orchestra director, Mrs. Todd, changed my schedule so I could be in the most advanced eighth-grade orchestra, an honor very few seventh-graders received at the time.

Why music - and teachers - matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona's top teachers MargieLooneyMiddleSchoolersCroppedHPWhen I switched orchestras, I was scared. I thought I might be like a sinking ship among eighth-grade musicians who sailed so effortlessly. After approaching my director about why she moved me, Mrs. Todd said that she saw my potential, believed in me, and although I didn’t currently have the musical technique to “hang” with the eighth graders, she knew I would rise to the occasion. I did. She gave me the skills I needed to achieve and throughout the year I flourished into a blossoming musician.

After reaching success with the Texas All-Region and All-Area Orchestras shortly thereafter, Mrs. Todd was the voice that suggested I start teaching private lessons. At first I questioned my abilities, but heard the same loving voice from my seventh-grade year, “I know you can do it.”

With Mrs. Todd’s encouragement and belief in my potential as an educator, I built a large accomplished private violin and viola studio as a high school student.

Why music - and teachers - matter: A Q&A with one of Arizona's top teachers MargieLooneyHighSchoolStringsI have successfully embarked on a path of teaching today because of the confidence that Mrs. Todd instilled within me at a young age.

Q: What do you find most rewarding and most challenging about the work you do with students?

A: I find the connections in my classroom to be one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching. It is amazing to see how my classes can all connect to each other through the gift of learning how to play music in an ensemble.

I love seeing my beginning orchestra students in fifth grade not really knowing each other or me, and after a few weeks into the school year we are making music together – connecting on rhythmic and melodic levels, all with the same posture and technique, for the common goal of creating beautiful music together.

The music we perform then connects our listeners to us. It is amazing to see how through our craft social, economic, and racial lines become blurred and many people who would otherwise have mostly differences between them have something in common.

The most challenging facet of teaching is that currently our orchestra room is bursting at the seams with students and instruments due to unprecedented growth.

As we need a larger classroom and our chairs are tightly placed, it makes it difficult for me travel around the classroom to work one-on-one with each student. This problem also creates a challenge for us to easily fit all of our students and expensive instruments in our room without running out of space.

This is a great dilemma to have, as it demonstrates that orchestra is important to the students in Willcox Middle School and High School.

My hope is that with continued growth within the orchestra program we will one day have a new fine arts building where orchestra can be comfortably housed with enough room for students to be able to freely use long bows without bumping into their neighbor.

Q: Many Arizona schools have turned to fundraising and partnerships to provide sheet music, instruments, repairs and more that used to be funded through soft capital that no longer exists. How have Willcox Unified and the community made sure students have the music materials they need?

A: Willcox Unified School District has been very supportive of providing the orchestra program with our needs. In addition, parents, students, teachers, administrators, community members, and businesses have all worked together to help the orchestra program succeed.

Through these partnerships we are able to order new instruments and music, take orchestra students to see the Phoenix Symphony each year, and we have been fortunate to see world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman perform with the Tucson Symphony, in addition to other exciting field trips and performance opportunities.

Q: Early this week, the Arizona Department of Education released draft 2015 Arizona Arts Standards for review and discussion. How will the proposed K-8 music standards and high school performing ensemble standards build on Arizona’s current create, relate and evaluate standards?

A: The Arizona Department of Education’s draft of the 2015 Arizona Arts Standards is exciting. I love how in-depth they are.

The draft builds on the current standards by utilizing many of the same strands, yet is expanded by including anchors within the grade levels. The creating, performing, responding, and connecting anchors will assist teachers to go more in depth with each facet of teaching music.

As educators follow the upcoming standards, students will be delving into more high-level thinking skills and finding more relationships between music and core content areas, cultures, and other art forms.

Parents may notice that their children’s music education is more comprehensive and that students will be able to more verbally articulate relationships, similarities, differences, and information about cultures and experiences within music.

Margie Looney, 2015 Ambassador for Excellence, AEF’s Arizona Teacher of the Year Program