Making Music and Making Connections

Holly Stumpf with several of her students

By Elena Murphy  |  Holly Stumpf’s Unique Teaching Style Helps Her Students Hear the Music All Around Them

On a recent afternoon, students are smiling widely as they start thumping on drums or shaking a rattle made of beads in Hollace Stumpf’s classroom at Harrington Elementary School.

So is their music teacher. “I’ve always enjoyed making music with others,” says Stumpf. “When I began teaching, I wanted kids to feel music is connected to their lives.”

Recently, her approach has won recognition. A music specialist at Harrington for a number of years, Stumpf was named a Distinguished Educator by Yale University School of Music, one of only 50 educators from around the country to receive the biennial award. Educators who win this award have integrated music with other curriculum and included a multicultural perspective.

Finding connections to other subjects students are learning, and bringing influences from around the world into the classroom is something Stumpf has always done. When she was just out of college, she read about the Orff Schulwerk, an institute founded by composer Karl Orff. The institute offered a program that was unlike anything she had heard about in her studies to become a music teacher and flutist.

Stumpf says Orff saw similarities between learning music and learning a language. In his view, students need opportunities to listen, imitate, and experiment as they develop mastery. Unlike schools that only taught musical technique, Stumpf took percussion and movement classes along with ensemble and music theory. Students connected music to dance, art, and everyday life. Stumpf says, “In a broader sense, Karl Orff was teaching how culture is in a lot of places.” It was only in the West, she says, that music was increasingly being separated from other activities, such as dance.

This experience changed everything about how Stumpf saw music education, and after two more years of studying and playing the flute professionally in Europe, she returned to the United States and embarked on a career that has brought influences as diverse as African drumming and the study of bird songs together.

“I realized I wanted to teach through music, not just teach music” in terms of technique, says Stumpf. To achieve that, she says she’s integrated music with almost anything in the curriculum, and has enjoyed collaborating with teachers over the years. When one class studied birds, she asked each child to choose an instrument that sounds like the bird they had researched, and replicate the bird’s song. She also blends in music theory, such as pointing out woodpeckers’ style of rapidly tapping their beaks sounds “staccato,” while smooth, more melodious songs are “legato.”

Students in her class also look at painting or sculpture to learn about music. The polygons in an Edward Hopper painting, she says, can be connected to different time signatures, with four-sided figures representing four beats and triangles representing three beats for a measure of music.

As Stumpf sees it, “If kids are doing things, they’ll remember a lot better.” So she has younger students compose music based on shapes: circular drums, a triangle, and rectangular wood blocks. She also has them recognize the high and low notes they can produce with their voices, so when she explains “pitch,” they already know the concept.

But she doesn’t stop with teaching musical technique. “When you want kids to be creative and experimental, think about expressing emotion,” she says. To do this, she uses “small frameworks,” such as asking children to “improvise a rhythm” with only two notes, before adding more notes or other guidelines.

The biggest challenge is “kids get stuck in their own heads that they ‘have to do it right.’” With just two notes to work with, they can create a pattern, and know they have achieved a goal, “and I can honestly tell them they’ve been successful,” says Stumpf.

To show how music figures in daily life around the world, Stumpf often invites guest artists to perform. After a trip to Senegal, Stumpf arranged for an African drum and dance performance followed by a workshop for students. This year, she had Hawaiian dancers perform in traditional dress, so students saw “authentic movement and instruments.”

Stumpf says that once a teacher decides to bring in multicultural influences, “it affects everything you do.” She’s been to Africa twice, most recently to Ghana, and as a result, enjoys African drumming herself. But her diverse interests also include English country dance from 600 years ago, and she has even taken up the cello to play in a chamber music quartet.

“If students see ‘different’ and make a connection or remember experiencing something different in my classroom, and recall that they liked it,” that’s part of “making the world a better place,” says Stumpf. “Different can be interesting.”       


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