Forest Hills — Learning to play an instrument engages the senses, from seeing the notes on the page to feeling vibrations in one’s hands, to hearing the layers of harmony that the instruments create.
Sixth-graders in Michelle Benjamin’s beginning band class at Central Woodlands experience all of these. They also feel the energy in their feet and use their senses to think about their favorite food.
While beginning band classes may be thought of as full of cacophony, a recent class was characterized by a feeling of calm. Except for the lightning bolts students’ imagined coming from their feet. Turns out, being mindful involves the senses too.
Sixth-graders warmed up their instruments as Central High students from Laura Zilhaver’s Band Tutoring class joined in.
Each student was greeted by name. Benjamin remembered which instruments they played, and helped those who needed to borrow one find what they needed.
Before playing their pieces, Benjamin invited students to run with their feet from the seated “music posture” position. Then they stood up, sat back down and ran again. This time, she invited students to imagine the energy in their feet as lightning going through their shoes, the floor, then the dirt, and even beyond the rocks and plants, bugs and worms that they imagined far beneath.
She ended the exercise by inviting students to breathe in and out with their feet flat and still.
Benjamin also invited students to breathe in and out using an expandable sphere as a visual. Students filled and emptied their lungs, practicing the breath support musicians use, in time with a large green and purple orb that she rounded out by expanding and compacting it.
Benjamin then gave students the option to “look through your eyelashes,” or close their eyes and think about their favorite food, what the setting they were imagining was and who was in the scene. She gave them 10 seconds to think about the experience, reminding them that “it’s not often that you just get to be your wonderful self… the best version of yourself.”
‘I was excited and more focused. It helped me get ready to play and forget all the other stuff that happens before class.’— Remi Cole, sixth grade flautist
After she counted down from 10 to 1, she invited students to share what food they had imagined. Students eagerly popcorned out their choices, thoughtfully, and one at a time: Adobo chicken, mint chocolate chip ice cream, fudge, pizza. Benjamin noted the differences in favorites and honored them: ‘Everyone’s important,” she told them. “Everyone can contribute. Everyone is heard.”
Learning how to be mindful
Benjamin learned about using techniques like those in 2019, in a series of classes at Kent ISD that included parents, educators and health care professionals. The class was led by Kent ISD consultant Patti Ward, who is now a Mindful Schools lead online course guide.
Mindful Schools is an organization that works with educators to create conditions for equity and joy to flourish through an intentional focus on mindfulness. Those ideas are ones educators are interested in learning more about; in late January, Benjamin shared her knowledge through a presentation about using mindfulness techniques in beginning band with 160 other educators at the Michigan Music Conference in Grand Rapids.
Benjamin herself has taken 64 hours worth of mindfulness courses for educational settings from a variety of local and national organizations. She says the mindfulness exercises she offers to students “open up the music brain” and support calm and focus by helping students get present and leave whatever happened before class outside.
Focus on Learning
Benjamin ended the short exercises with a reflection question — “Do you feel any different than when you first entered the room?” — and the reassurance that any answer a student chose to give was the right one.
“I feel very relaxed,” one student responded. Another nodded.
“I was excited and more focused,” said flautist Remi Cole when asked the question after class. “It helped me get ready to play and forget all the other stuff that happens before class.”
Said Jacob Houck: “I felt bored and stressed out and when I came in here and did the imagination (exercise), I relaxed and am having a lot of fun.”
‘Everyone’s important. Everyone can contribute. Everyone is heard.’— Teacher Michelle Benjamin on how building connections in band builds community
Fellow percussionist Evan Bannick agreed. “I was energetic and excited when I came into the band room. Now I feel more calm.” Benjamin added that she noticed the shift in Evan’s energy to focusing his enthusiasm on learning.
Students sometimes ask Benjamin to lead them in a certain mindfulness exercise, she said. But they don’t use that term; instead they ask if we can “play that game” again.
Senior DeLaina Billingsley, one of the high school band tutors, started band as a sixth-grader. She echoes Benjamin’s growth mindset ideas when she encourages the beginning students she tutors to stick with it. She points out that band is social: students get to meet new people, and “you can get better at it — and it’s fun,” DeLaina said.
Mindfulness is Fun
That last word, “fun,” comes up a lot in conversation about Benjamin’s class. She recalled a student who told her he was often in trouble for throwing things and talking, but that he learned more about how his mind works through mindfulness techniques. He said her band class was different for him: Benjamin met students at the door and was always happy. And the class is fun.
‘I felt bored & stressed out, and when I came in here and did the imagination (exercise) I relaxed and am having a lot of fun.”— sixth-grader Jacob Houck
Benjamin’s own learning about mindfulness made her love teaching even more, she said. She has more than 150 students at both Central Woodlands and Northern Trails.
“I use mindfulness in all of my band classes to focus the students on their music and to be present with kindness as a contributing member of the band.”
She said she wants her band room to feel like walking into a restaurant or bakery, with all the anticipation of good things to come that those places evoke.
But it’s more than just a vibe she’s after. She seeks to help students experience harmony not only in their music, but also harmony in their relationships with self and others.
“Students know that I love that they are here.”