Tell Me Something, Randi Levy
Even though she is the daughter of two music teachers, Randi Levy did not want to go into music education.
The joke in her family was that she would become a lawyer, given her penchant for arguing.
But she knew what she really wanted. “I wanted to be the female Billy Joel and be a singer songwriter,” Levy says. After finishing Lawrence University in Wisconsin, she returned to the Washington area and took jobs playing and singing her original work.
She quickly learned what a hard life that is. “You have to be cutthroat and sell yourself,” she says. “That’s not the artistic temperament. That’s not me.”
She returned to college and earned a master’s degree in music education. She landed a job at an elementary school, but it wasn’t the best fit. She worked in her church for awhile, creating her own music program. Thirteen years ago, she found her home at Roberto Clemente Middle School and has never looked back. She started as the band and orchestra teacher, but soon realized that she could create a new program unlike any other the school had ever seen.
“Kids who played rock instruments had no outlet at school,” she says. “We have violins and trumpets for any kid who wants to play, but we don’t have other instruments. Music education was changing, but public education wasn’t changing with it.
“I was seeing stories about places offering music camps or after-school programs; I call them the pay-to-play system. If you wanted to participate and couldn’t afford it, then that was too bad.”
Levy thought back to her childhood. Her parents were professionally trained musicians—her father a jazz trumpet player and her mother, a pianist. “I played the French horn,” she recalls. “It was my bread and butter, but I hated it. I would sit at the piano for hours and make up songs. By the time I got to college, I had written 50-plus songs. I started my own band.
“I didn’t fit in to the box, so there was never a place in school for me to do that. I was the kid who slipped through the cracks. I created what I wish I had.”
And, create she did. She began by launching an after-school club called After School of Rock. That created a demand and led her to be able to start a new class, History of Popular Music.
“We start in the 1950s and study the music in the context of the culture,” she says. “We talk about Chuck Berry in the context of segregation. We move into the 1960s and talk about protest music with Bob Dylan, black empowerment and Motown. We go into ‘70s punk rock and disco and the Vietnam War. [Students] get engaged with it. We look at lots of videos from The Ed Sullivan Show and Soul Train. There’s so much out there.
“I try to tell stories, to put the kids into the shoes of what it must have felt like at the time,” Levy says. It’s hard for them to “imagine no YouTube, three TV stations and running home to catch one TV show at night because there’s no DVR.”
Still, she wanted to offer more. She told a story of visiting a mom-and-pop record shop while in middle school. “I was the only person in there. I picked up some album, and the guy working came over and said, ‘No, no, no and handed me Abbey Road. The next time I was in, I discovered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I started studying artists, instead of just listening to them.”
She began to design Rock Band classes that would study artists and musical eras.
The Rock Band classes are an elective and have three levels—Introduction to Rock Band, Beginning Rock Band and Advanced Rock Band. When sixth graders come in, they start on acoustic guitar. They soon move to the drums, electric bass, electric guitar and keyboard. They develop a set list and choose their final songs. When students join the class, Levy divides them into groups, or “bands.” “They have their own ideas about what band they want to be in, but they may not get their first, second or third choices,” Levy explains. “I guarantee there will be someone in the band they won’t get along with.
“When a band has trouble, they have a meeting and try to resolve it. If not, I come in and help them talk to each other. I’ll say, ‘You don’t have to sit with them at lunch, but you have to work with them in this band. What do you have to do to make this work?’”
The first semester of the intro class teaches them to play acoustic guitar. The second semester, they begin to learn to play music together. In the 7th grade, they move to the next level of independence. They learn the history of popular music and learn how to play as part of an ensemble. “It’s relevant; it’s relatable,” Levy says. “The ‘50s and the ‘80s are the same to them. They’ll come up to me and say, ‘I learned about a new band today; they’re called Earth, Wind and Fire.’”
Advanced Rock Band students are more independent. They spend six weeks studying the Beatles, the barriers they broke, how their songwriting changed and influenced music in just 10 years. They also participate in a fun ritual—a Battle for the Bands event. Students design a band from scratch, come up with a name and logo, build a multimedia campaign and play a show with student judges. “It’s the closest you get to being a real band,” Levy says.
The Rock Band program is now 10 years old. Ten years ago, the class had 30 students in it. Today, she has 150 Rock Band students. Half of the students at Clemente have taken a music class of some sort.
“My goal is for kids to be lifelong lovers of music,” she says. “I want this class to help them learn how to navigate life, to give them a head start on how to get along with people.
“I want my kids to have an experience that is incredible,” Levy says. “It is about the music in many ways. Rock Band also allows you to collaborate in a small group on a daily basis. It’s not the traditional stand-and-deliver kind of teaching.”
The class incorporates a lot of student input, Levy says. “They have a lot of power to make decisions. I guide the process. I give them the structure of the music and together, we pick music. I teach them about appropriate lyrics and how to identify a song at their musical level.”
At the end of each semester, there is a concert. Levy’s students compete against each other for the prize of Best Band. Tickets are sold and proceeds support a year-end trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
“They learn about the artists, then we go to the Hall of Fame and see everything we’ve been talking about. They walk in and see Elvis on the black-and-white TV. They see Jimi Hendrix’s left-handed guitar. They also get to perform on the Rock & Roll stage while there.”
Levy beams when talking about the program, which she hopes can be replicated in other schools throughout the county and the country.
The National Association of Music Education recently came up with a new category of ensemble called Modern Band. “This is a huge tsunami in my opinion,” Levy says. “Up until now, we’ve had the categories on orchestra, concert band and marching band.” By adding Modern Band, “they are acknowledging this is a real thing.”
Students gain self-esteem in the classes, and Levy has seen them blossom in remarkable ways.
“It’s a badge of honor to walk around with an electric guitar on your back, or carrying drumsticks from class to class,” Levy says. Students’ “identity is wrapped up in those instruments. There’s a pride that goes along with being here.
“These kids will find their way. They will join pit band or marching band or jazz band, or some will quit altogether, but they’ve got a confidence they didn’t have before. Not every singer is an extrovert, but they flip a switch on stage and it’s amazing. Some kids talk so soft in class and they get on stage and belt out Beyonce.”
Tell Me More
What’s one thing you couldn’t live without: Jesus
Favorite musical artist: U2
What three traits define you: Loyal, compassionate, visionary
Best place you’ve traveled: The Cayman Islands
What do you do when you’re not at work: Paddleboard. Go for walks in the woods, with no earbuds in. I’m replenished by solitude.
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: Skydive
If you could have any one job for one day, what would it be: To be able to stand on a stage and sing an original song in front of 50,000 people and have people sing that song back to you. That has to be an amazing feeling.
What was your first-ever job: Cashier at High’s convenience store in Beltsville
First thing you would buy if you hit the lottery: Rock band equipment for every school in the county
Favorite sport: Rock climbing
Favorite sports team: Washington Capitals
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be: Ellen DeGeneres