South Philadelphia: Music in the Classroom

Hoke said he can tell when some students aren't playing their keyboards at all from his headphones.]

Room 107 of George W. Nebinger School almost always brims with noise – and last Wednesday was no different.

Aaron Hoke taught at an all-girls Catholic high school before beginning at Nebinger more than three years ago.

“Great big house in New Orleans, 40 stories high,” a group of students sang, their pitches and enthusiasm levels varied. “Every room that I been in’s filled with pumpkin pie.”

A few stray eyes diverted their attention from the keyboards in front of them to Aaron Hoke, the head keyboardist and vocal general music teacher at Nebinger. Hoke is one of three music teachers at the school, but he is the only person the students see regularly for classes.

Hoke teaches seven classes a day at Nebinger. Coming to the School District of Philadelphia from an all-girls Catholic high school four years ago shifted a lot of things for him.

“In the School District of [Philadelphia], you can’t get away with anything,” he said. “You have to be on your game at all times and ready for any number of circumstances, but I’m definitely up for the challenge.”

From managing large classes on his own to smiling at a child yelling out “chicken pie” while offering his own rendition of “Great Big House in New Orleans,” Hoke said there’s never a dull moment in his classroom.

“It can be difficult from time to time if I’m not arriving to school with my ‘A’ game because things can very easily slip out of hand,” Hoke said of some behavioral difficulties. “But every year I teach in the district, this gets easier and easier.”

Since some students aren't as musically apt as others, Hoke said he is sure to vary the levels of difficulty in each class.

During his time at Nebinger, Hoke has tried to maintain teaching for classes with limited to average music abilities while also narrowing in on students who might excel if they invested more time in singing or an instrument.

To make sure students can relate their musical experiences with their regular classroom curriculum, Hoke said he collaborates with teachers to incorporate mathematics, vocabulary and geography lessons into his lesson plans.

Music class can adversely affect the students’ learning when they return to their typical learning environments.

“Sometimes it can be music class that gets kids in the right frame of mind to be successful in the regular [education] classroom,” Hoke said. “There are a large number of kids who have a facility for music, and it can give them the confidence they need to know they can be successful and excel subsequently in other areas.”

If a student shows promise in his or her music abilities, Hoke takes note. Two teachers already teach once-a-week classes to students who play a string, brass, woodwind or percussion instrument, and the school’s informal partnership with the Mary Louise Curtis branch of Settlement Music School in Queen Village continues to facilitate Nebinger students’ talents.

“Our teachers are able to help out with details the teacher doesn’t have time for, like technical lessons,” said Eric Anderson, who left the Curtis branch after 24 years for Settlement’s Germantown branch in September.

In class, students use Casio keyboards and wear headphones. Hoke can hear what the students are playing from his keyboard at the front of the class.

Anderson said during his tenure at Settlement in Queen Village, a lot of students from the neighborhood’s schools attended the community music school. Over the summer, Anderson met with Nebinger principal Ralph Burnley and Hoke to discuss ways to involve Nebinger students with Settlement, including financial aid packages the music school offers.

“We try to get as many students as possible to reinforce what they are learning here in school through the use of private teachers,” Hoke said, though he also tries to challenge them in the classroom.

“It’s important to have a larger excerpt [of a song] for them to play or to have an alternate activity for them to work on,” he said. “It’s good to give them a little bit extra so they don’t just get bored and shut down.”

Just the other day, Hoke diagnosed a student with perfect pitch after challenging the child in class by starting a song in a different key. The student identified the wrong pitch, which Hoke said is highly unusual but particularly exciting.

“There are students that come through here with raw talent,” Hoke said.

For behavioral purposes, Hoke used consequences as a way to keep students in check.

At the start of the school year, Burnley cited parental involvement as an “uphill struggle” at Nebinger, but it’s clear the arts piqued parents’ interest.

“We managed to have a good turnout and parental involvement last year with our music program,” Burnley said.

Art classes could offer similar success this year, and Burnley was interested in weaving art classes into Nebinger’s curriculum, but he had to look for ways to outsource. The principal tasked Hoke to find art teachers who would volunteer to come in to Nebinger.

Hoke said he can tell when some students aren't playing their keyboards at all from his headphones.

Hoke approached the Fleisher Art Memorial located at the nearby Seventh and Catharine streets about a collaboration and was successful: In the near future, a guest art teacher will begin coming to Nebinger’s seventh grade class twice a week for 90 minutes.

“They are going to do a collaborative project that will tie in with art, language arts and social studies,” Hoke said, adding that starting with a singular class enables the school to establish a lasting relationship with Fleisher.

“Hopefully when we get the chance to do this again, another class will get that same experience,” Hoke said.

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