Q&A: Brenda McCulley, Lower School Music Teacher

Brenda McCulley Lower School Music Teacher headshotActions is a new editorial feature from Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child. Each week we will spotlight the dedicated faculty and staff across the PK-12 campus who make a difference in the lives of OKS students and the life of the school. This week, we feature:

Brenda McCulley

Lower School Music Teacher

Q: Christmas is a special time on campus at Oak Knoll. This year, unfortunately our campus was remote due to COVID-19 in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Can you talk a little about how this impacted the Christmas concerts and how you pivoted to ensure this year’s concert was still special for the students and families?
A: The tradition of sharing the nativity at OKS during this Christmas had to continue. A normal concert would have grades 1-6 singing and performing several choral arrangements of songs that follow the story of Jesus’ birth. Sixth grade also had the additional responsibility of playing instrumental accompaniments on many of the songs. With limited space and limited time to record anything safely, it was decided that there would be one music activity per grade level. We tried to do grade-level appropriate songs that provided each grade access to stretching their musicianship. Then, with the direction of Mrs. Patti Cepparulo, Lower School Drama and Religion teacher, and Creative Movement teacher Mrs. Hartmann, the presentation was completed with student narration and dance. It’s always a team effort!

Q: With a possible closure looming due to COVID-19, how did you specifically prepare for the Christmas concert while on campus? What were some of the music COVID safety measures that were implemented these past few months?
A: Each grade level’s song was placed on the student’s Clever music page online for them to practice as homework. Audio recordings were done the week before Thanksgiving. Students came to the Lower School chapel in groups of four at a time, and they recorded their assigned song by singing with masks or playing their assigned instruments while socially distanced.

Q: Can you talk specifically about how you have managed Oak Knoll’s music program and classes amid the pandemic?
A: I have to share how much I miss hearing the children sing and singing with them!! But, with limited singing we’ve had more time to have lessons about musicianship. Developing an understanding of timbre, dynamics, tempo, and texture does help a child hear the layers of music in our daily lives. This has been the year of instilling a solid sense of beat and rhythm! There have been several contributions from many music educators to read grade-level music notation as the students play along with their classroom instruments. Other activities include reading rhythmic notation with placement in body percussion (snap, clap, pat, stomp). Also, this is the year to have more listening lessons on various genres, composers and the structure or form of a piece of music.

Q: Despite the changes and challenges with running a successful music program during COVID times, how have you been able to continue engaging our students in music and, looking back, have there been any silver linings?
A: All children love to play instruments. All classes make some music instrumentally, or electronically. I always hear an excited response if we get to go on the patio area of the Lower School and play drums. Individual music kit bags were purchased for all students in pre-K through grade 2. Grades 3 through 6 have been introduced to virtual instruments on various websites. Also, grades 3 and 4 are continuing to learn the recorder. This challenge is accomplished by playing outside when the weather permits or playing at home when we’ve been remote. Students in grades 5 and 6 have a unit of study on the ukulele. The students also enjoy the electronic forms of music education. Grades 4-6 are beginning a composition unit using Noteflight (notation software), Soundtrap (digital audio workstation) and Chrome Music Lab.

Q: How do school music programs create positive influences in the lives of students?
A: I tell students that music is a wonderful medicine. It can calm you down, it can make you dance, it can connect you with any social emotional need you may have. It feeds your soul. I also tell my students that their time in music classes are to help them connect their musical paths. That includes developing their skills as a musician, or as a supporter of the various genres of music they identify with. When you limit teaching music, and other arts in your school setting, you truly are not developing students to reach their best potential to deal with the world today.

Brenda McCulley is in her 15th year as Oak Knoll’s Lower School music teacher. She previously taught in other private and public schools in New Jersey and Missouri. Some of her professional highlights include conducting the New Jersey elementary All-State Chorus in 2010. She has also earned certifications in various music education methodologies including Orff Schulwerk, World Drumming and Feierabend’s First Steps in Music. Originally from Oklahoma, McCulley’s family moved to New Jersey in 1985 and is the proud grandmother of Zachary and Cora.

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dr. melissa maskerysarah thornton, oak knoll lower school stem teacher, outside teaching a class.