August 18, 2008

Teacher’s Helper — Fills Gaps in Music Instructors’ Professional Development, Resources

By Jonathan Devin

When Dr. Deanna Stark taught elementary school music for Memphis City Schools, she found herself, like many teachers, struggling for classroom resources and creative freedom.

"The schools have no money for anything," said Stark, 43, of Memphis, who began teaching in 1988. "The last computer I had had no sound on it, so if the kids were working on music software, they couldn't listen to their work."

Last September, Stark created her own business, Sister Squared, filling in the gaps in music teachers' professional development and resources using Orff Schulwerk, a methodology for teaching music adopted by Memphis City Schools' elementary curriculum to enhance the learning experience for teachers and students alike.

"Everything that I really like to do with teaching and music has congealed in this," said Stark, who holds a bachelor's degree in music education and sacred music, a master's in Orff and a Ph.D. in historical musicology, all from the University of Memphis.

Orff emphasizes interactive, experiential learning in which students learn music first by making it with instruments or voices, rather than learning the technical skills of reading music. Dance and movement are also incorporated.

Stark likens it to learning to speak words before reading them. She said students used to sit and listen as a music teacher made music, but now they participate as a class in musical activities.

Orff was developed during the 1940s and '50s by the late Munich music instructor Carl Orff and one of his students, Gunild Keetman. It focuses on prekindergarten through sixth-grade students.

As a teacher, Stark had already been teaching two-week Orff training courses for universities during the summers, but she noticed that elementary schools did not specifically offer in- services for music teachers.

Then a colleague with the Muscogee County (Georgia) school district hired her for a one-day workshop in August 2007, and later invited her back for a weeklong workshop in June. She certified all of the county's music teachers in Orff.

"That's when it became apparent that there's a real market there," Stark said.

Stark invested about $3,000 in her Web site,, and developed music books and teacher guides. To cut costs and to make materials more affordable for schools, she publishes most of her materials by PDF and is working on podcasts.

Then Stark, who once described herself as "the teacher who couldn't stand being in the same building all day," hit the road, booking workshops nationwide. School districts and universities learn about her through presentations with local and national Orff chapters, which exist in all 50 states.

This fall she will teach in Baldwin City, Kan.; Houston; Las Cruces, N.M.; and Little Rock. She led a workshop for Orff chapter members at the University of Memphis in late July.

Stark's fee is $125 per hour plus travel expenses, with workshops lasting up to 40 hours over two weeks.

"I have to be willing to go when someone calls, especially right now at the beginning," she said, adding that she also has to be willing to work with some uncertain audiences.

"It's very difficult to get a general music teacher up out of the chair and physically moving through the space," Stark said. "They're used to sitting on a piano bench playing the music while the children do nothing. And that's how we learn music? Doesn't that sound like fun?"

Another challenge is ever-shifting trends in public education. Realizing that cash-strapped public schools may not always make a priority of elementary music, Stark has begun appealing to private schools and home school associations to keep her business timeless.

"It makes sense that Orff is a community business," Stark said. "It really builds community inside a classroom, because all the kids know that they are a part of it."


Sister Squared

Owner: Dr. Deanna Stark


Contact: [email protected]


Originally published by Jonathan Devin / Special to The Commercial Appeal .

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