TREMONT — Natalia Pajor, who teaches fourth grade at Tremont Consolidated School, has joined the school’s Beginner Band and is learning how to play the trombone.
“I’m starting fresh alongside them,” she said. “It’s good for them to see just because I’m teaching doesn’t mean I’m not learning.
“It’s teaching me to be vulnerable,” she continued. “We ask the kids to do that every day when we ask them to raise their hand and speak up in class.”
Pajor had approached music teacher Allison Putnam at the beginning of the school year and floated the idea of learning an instrument.
“She felt it was really important for her students see her go through this experience,” said Putnam.
Putnam put Pajor through the same paces she would a student to figure out what instrument would be the right fit.
“I give a mouthpiece assessment to each fourth grader at the beginning of the year,” Putnam said. “I have them buzz on trumpet and trombone mouthpieces, make a sound on a clarinet and flute, and maintain a steady beat on a snare drum.
“This gets them excited about playing a wind or percussion instrument and it allows me to see what instrument they would be strongest on.
“From there, I communicate my findings with them and their parents and steer them in the best direction when thinking about which instrument to choose.”
Usually, this assessment process happens one-on-one in a hallway, but Pajor did hers in front of the class to demonstrate the process.
She played the flute when she was in elementary school, she said, but had “always wanted to play a loud and boisterous instrument.”
Pajor’s idea caught on and two other staff members signed up for music lessons.
Math teacher Geoff Wood joined the chorus to show students that boys can enjoy singing. Anne Dalton, who has been the school counselor at Tremont for the last eight years, decided to try her hand at the violin.
“This is the first collaboration of this type [teachers learning instruments alongside students],” Putnam said, “but there have been various cross-disciplinary collaborations with many of my colleagues over the years.”
For example, last year’s spring concert theme was “Carnival of the Animals.” The band played the piece by Camille Saint-Saens, led by Putnam. Art teacher Chandra Raymond and French/social studies teacher Katrina Linscott also worked with students and with each other to prepare for the big event.
School counselor Dalton plays the piano, and grew up playing clarinet, but has never played strings.
“At my age, we really need to be learning something new,” she said.
She has joined the second grade music class.
“We haven’t started bow work yet,” she noted. “We’re still plucking.
“The kids got a big kick out of it on the day I forgot my violin!” she said.
Dalton has a bit of an edge on the other students in the class: She can read music.
Putnam and Dalton have been doing a music lesson swap. Putnam, whose primary instrument is clarinet, has been taking piano lessons from Dalton.
“Piano is one of those things that feels overwhelming to me,” said Putnam. “We all have strengths and weaknesses.”
Dalton is able to sit in with her classmates once a week and learn about the stringed instrument as they do, including how to hold it properly.
“It feels awkward in my hands,” she said. “I have to get comfortable with this new instrument. I’m enjoying it, so far. Maybe I can move up to third grade by the end of the year.”
In order to play in the band, Pajor has had to carve out time in her week to take individual lessons with Putnam. Two days a week, she comes to school a little early and has 15-minute lessons with Putnam.
That’s the same amount of individual instruction as each student gets.
“Forty minutes a week is a lot of time to give to something that’s not necessarily helping me,” said Pajor, who has a toddler at home. “It’s hard. It’s hard to sit there and play the note and not hit it correctly.”
Often her students will come into the classroom as she and Putnam are finishing the morning lesson.
“In my eight o’clock lessons they’ll clap for me and I’ll think, I hit that note wrong,” said Pajor. “It’s good for them to see me fail … Usually, they inspire me everyday and now I’m inspiring them.”
Putnam taught high school music before coming to Tremont in 2015. Other than being able to use more advanced language with older students, the teaching is pretty much the same for everyone.
“I don’t find it to be very different, really,” said Putnam. “It’s really interesting to teach an adult, but not that different, because everybody’s starting at the same spot.”
She said she is most impressed that her fellow teachers are modeling important life skills for their students. How it’s vital to be a life-long learner and how fun learning can be. How being prepared means making sure you have your instrument and music, and it also means putting in solo practice time. And how everyone learns at a different pace.
“You get the skill through the time you put into it,” said Dalton. “I would like to play everyday. I don’t get to. When I sit down to practice, I don’t get up.”
Pajor said she has taken to listening to more trombone music, especially the jazzy, funk style of New Orleans. And, even though it is one more thing to add to her already busy life, she’s planning to keep working at it.
“I think it would be foolish not to stick it out,” she said. “We encourage kids to keep trucking.”
When asked if she’ll be performing in the holiday and year-end music concerts with the students, Pajor drops her head and groans at the thought of a public performance.
“I’m in the band,” she concedes. “I’m one of the kids.”