“Bridging the Gap” in Music Education

Catlin Gabel music teacher Alex Juarez is helping students make connections across genres and generations.

“Everything revolved around football,” Alex Juarez recalls of his middle school years in the small town of Celina, Texas. But when he finally attended his first big football pep rally, it wasn’t the sport that excited him—it was the band. “I was just blown away,” he recalls, “I knew I had to find out how to get in band.’”

Growing up in Mexico City, he was an avid music listener, and his taste was eclectic (at one stage, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Bob Marley were in heavy rotation on his Fisher Price cassette player). But after the pep rally, he was ready to start performing. His seventh grade band director had him try out every instrument, and pegged him as a future clarinetist. “I'm glad he did,” Alex says. “It’s an instrument I'm very fond of, and it helped me easily transition to saxophone later on.”

And as his musical pursuits expanded in high school he became aware of what he now calls “the gap”—the separation between his formal music training and enjoying music with friends. “I separated these two worlds,” Alex says. “There was the rock band world, where we would listen to music and just do covers, and then there was the more formal band. But I never merged those two separate worlds. I never realized, "Oh, they use the same music, and they use almost the same techniques.”

Bridging that gap became a focus of his studies and his professional life. After a stint gigging in New Orleans after high school, he enrolled in Texas A&M University in Commerce to study music education, and then earned a Masters in Musicology from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His goal was to become a high school band director, but through his student teaching, he learned that he enjoyed working with younger grades as well. Now Alex fills the roles of both Middle School music teacher and director of the Upper School Jazz Band at Catlin Gabel.

Explaining how his childhood experiences in music shaped his approach as a teacher, Alex says, “I think students see music education that happens in school as different from the music that happens in their everyday lives. But music is always present in our lives, from morning to night, whether we’re conscious of it or not. So I try to bring that to the forefront, to make students aware that the things I'm teaching in class can be found outside. I have students bring in examples of what they’re listening to, and I apply concepts to things that they’re already familiar with, their own music.”

He also wants to help his students make connections across musical genres and generations, linking what they know to something new and unfamiliar. “You do want to get them to the musical canon, but I think you can really alienate students when you just tell them, ‘It’s all about Mozart, Beethoven. It’s all about Coltrane.’ You can bridge the gap and get them to those masters, but only if you focus on what they’re currently into now, and try to make lessons that revolve around that.”

“What brought me to Catlin is the exploratory nature of the courses,” Alex says, “having the opportunity to open things up and have students explore by doing. And, along with the other music teachers, our goal is to align the curriculum across divisions—a vertical alignment where a student who starts in preschool here gets to know all the music teachers.”

“One of the coolest things about being a teacher,” Alex says, “is having students that I start off teaching in kindergarten, who once they reach the  eighth grade, they're just beasts on their instrument. It’s really cool to see that, and hopefully to be able to say, ‘I started them in their love of music and introduced them to this passion.’ Just like my band director did for me.”