A Choral Connection: Local Teacher Spotlight with Mitchell Harmon

October 17, 2021

by katie jones backer

Have you longed for live music in the past year or so? Isn’t there something so completely magical about being in a room with swelling choral voices? It’s powerful… and healing. Music is important for a variety of reasons, and fortunately for the students at Ben Steele Middle School they get an incredibly talented, energetic, and empathetic teacher to lead their Choir: Mr. Mitchell Harmon!

 I asked Mitchell to share some of the ways music has been a defining part of his life, and why he thinks it’s so important for students today. Check out below to read up on one of our amazing Billings educators!

Thanks for doing this, Mitchell!

Please tell us about yourself and how music became such a big part of your life!

My name is Mitchell Harmon. I was born and raised in Laurel, MT where I attend Laurel Public Schools K-12. I was always interested in pursuing a career that involved working with children. Originally, I was looking into pediatrics but soon shifted to education. If I could take my two passions, music and working with children, and combine them, why wouldn’t I choose this as a career? I attended Rocky Mountain College and graduated with my bachelor's in K-12 Music Education. I immediately applied for a Long-Term Assignment in the Billings School District and accepted a 4-month position teaching K-5 General Music at three different schools. Soon after, I received word of a middle school choir position opening at the brand-new Ben Steele Middle School. I was aware that as a fresh college graduate with little experience, it may be a bit ambitious, but I applied and was elated when I was offered the position. I have been teaching at Ben Steele since 2017, now entering my fifth year of teaching. I’m so blessed and honored to be working with the amazing parents, staff, and students at this school.

That is awesome! Can you share your thoughts on why music class is important for our kids? How does Choir impact their lives?

The music class—choir in particular—has so many things to offer these students. From an academic perspective, choir integrates math, science, history, art, and sometimes even physical education (yes, I have made some classes do wall squats and kickboxing to work on their breathing and coordination). What other classes can you think of that offers this kind of combination of subjects?

One of the unintended benefits of a choir setting is the drawing of students from all backgrounds and friend groups. We talk about the Three Elements of Choir: Choir is an Adventure, Choir is a Haven, and Choir is a Team. Every year I see students, who often run in different crowds, come together to work for something bigger than themselves. Friendships are born, collaboration happens, memories are made, all because a student decided to try out that one class called Choir.

We also explore how we are affected by music, both physically and emotionally. Music is often an outlet for our inner emotions. It may sound cliché, but music does move you. The pairing of a beautiful melody with powerful words can completely change the trajectory of a student’s day. I’ve had students enter the classroom feeling down and heavy, and within the hour they’re able to shake off the troubles of the day and leave with a smile on their face, ready to face the next class period with positivity and a grateful attitude.

I have my students write concert reflections after our major performances and often offer a space for the students to write additional comments if they choose. I get some hilarious, off-topic, or simply odd messages (remember the age group I work with) but many times I receive messages of pure gratitude. Messages that say things like, “No matter how bad my day is, the second I go to choir, I feel better” or “This class is the only reason I go to school every day.”

We, as educators, don’t always see what's going on behind the scenes so it’s easy to assume all of our smiling students are happy and okay. One message in particular pulled at my heartstrings last year. This student was suffering from mental health issues throughout the year but would always come to class with a smile on her face. Her message wrote: “I will miss you so much! You impacted my life so much, I am so thankful for what you did for me and who you helped me become. I'm gonna miss you Mr. Harmon. Thank you for everything and keep doing what you are doing. Music saved my life and it was because of you. You’re a literal superhero. Much love.”

It’s moments like this where I forget all of the stress and sass I have to endure in class. Music is saving lives. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to share this with others.

Every year, however, I get to witness many different successes. Having students in my program for up to three years in a row, I have the chance to watch them grow, both in musical skill and in height! Seeing my students perform and grow in confidence is so rewarding. I especially love it when my students audition for high school choir, and I get to tell them that they made an upper-level choir. Their faces light up like no other when they realize that they made it into ensembles with the “older kids." I feel so much pride attending West High’s concerts and seeing the shy 6th grade faces on the stage, all grown up and thriving.

How has teaching Choir during the pandemic been? Masks while singing—how does that even work? What has impressed you about your students during this time?

Going into the 2020 school year, I was mentally prepared for the hardest year of teaching that I, and many other teachers, have ever experienced. In order to combat these difficulties, I chose to have an irrationally positive attitude every day. When we were back together in the classroom, although socially distanced and masked, you could feel the happiness radiate from everyone; we were simply happy to be back with one another. I did everything I could to make the year feel like a normal year. If you think about it, so many things were taken away from my 8th-grade group that they would typically have the chance to do including tours and out-of-town festivals. We made the best year we could despite all of these setbacks, and I can honestly say, it was my best year of teaching and my students excelled beyond my already high expectations. With frequent mask breaks, some patience, and a whole lotta grace, we had an INCREDIBLE school year.

Do you have a vision for 2021-2022? Any big dreams or goals for your Choir program?

This year, I’m planning on doing the same as last. Treat every day as an opportunity to create something beautiful with the students. Attitude really is everything. My goal is to continue challenging my students and pushing them to be better musicians but also equip them with practical life skills to help them succeed in collaborative work in the future. I would like to eventually submit auditions for my choirs to Northwest ACDA (American Choral Directors Association) and tour with my kids, allowing them moments to shine and show off what they’ve learned to a bigger audience. I learn so much every year that informs how I teach the next. My goal this year is to be a better teacher, and this will continue to be my goal the year after.

Do you have to listen to EVERYTHING ever made? How on earth do you choose songs? Can you give a few examples of songs you've led? Any hits with the kids?

The music I choose for my ensembles is often…weird! I love exploring things outside of the typical “choir box” that many people think of. Music of other countries and cultures is often fun because it allows us to learn more about specific places across the globe and it often is a new sound. Something that will catch one’s ear and draw them in. I love to constantly listen to new music as well as reach out to fellow choral educators for suggestions. I push my students to perform some challenging repertoire and those songs usually get the biggest pushback until they master it, then it becomes their absolute favorite. I will also add that I am a HUGE believer in body movement when making music. The body, mind, and soul are all so interconnected and I believe trying to suppress one while making music isn’t healthy for the whole person. You will often find my tall, clumsy self dancing in the classroom.. but I have found the invitation to the students to be weird and crazy, is a successful learning strategy.

Some of my favorite songs that we have performed would include “Joyful, Joyful” from Sister Act 2 (fully choreographed), Old West Medley (complete with choreography and some great western costumes), “Various Themes on a ‘Fa-la-la’”, “This Ol’ Man” (I adore taking silly children’s songs and choir-izing them), and then several songs from different languages and cultures such as, “Ritmo” (Spanish), “Ujedinite Se” (Bosnian, Hebrew, Arabic), “Diu Diu Dang” (Taiwanese), Sisi Kushangilia (Swahili), Veniki (Russian), and so on. I could literally sit and talk about repertoire all day; it’s my favorite! If I like the song, it typically will appeal to my students, and if it doesn’t, I continue to show all of the interesting elements of the song until they eventually give in!

To conclude, is there anything else we missed or that you would like to share with our readers?

I believe that any student, no matter their background or level of confidence, can actively grow as a musician… and as a person. I was a shy, awkward kid in middle school and was able to grow to love my uniqueness. I want my students to recognize the things that make them unique and use them to grow in confidence and skill. I tell my students often to “Embrace your Weird”. We need to enjoy these times in an environment that offers safety and kindness. Learning is fun and as a teacher, I strive to have fun every day! I cannot wait until I’m that 70-year old, crazy, dancing teacher.

Good luck to all of the teachers out there; it’s going to be a fantastic year!

Isn’t his enthusiasm just palpable!? I want to go sing and dance in that class… don’t you!? Whether alone, in a group, singing in the car/shower/kitchen, go belt those tunes today… and maybe get down with some fun dance moves too. Well, on second thought, maybe don’t dance in the car or shower, but you get what we’re saying. As Mr. Harmon says, “Embrace your weird!”

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