Unveiling Genius: The Best Music Teacher- Her Hidden Talent

Julie trying out a trumpet

Music is a language onto its own, but it requires a master translator to bring it to the masses. In my 26 years as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to observe a lot of teachers. Julie Harrison is the absolute best! I had an opportunity to work with her and her students at The Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind over a period of 5 days recently. 

  • You’ve probably never heard of her. 
  • It’s unlikely you have met her. 
  • She’s had students make it into honor and all-state bands, but the credit for those achievements usually goes to someone else.

I’ve known her and observed her in action for over 20 years. Here’s why I think Julie Harrison is The Best Music Teacher I Know…

Although she has Extensive Knowledge and Experience and earned a master’s degree in music therapy, she continues to study and learn to improve her abilities. I was brought in for this particular project to specifically help her with wind instruments.  Her forte is keyboard and guitar. She really is an expert in her field, and I reminded her of that! But just because we are experts does not mean we are done growing. Julie is a life-long learner. 

She is an Effective Communicator. She is able to take complex musical concepts and break it down for students, many of whom also have cognitive disabilities and physical challenges. She breaks down musical concepts into clear and accessible nuggets of musicality, yet she also discusses higher level concepts of music theory with her more advanced students. Her Passion for Music AND Teaching Music stands out in every interaction she has with students. 

She has a Strong Track Record of Student Success, but you have probably never heard of her. Her main group – she teaches K-12 music – is called the Bulldog Band. Unless you listened to Colorado Public Radio when they were featured, you would not know about their fame. She also has students who make it into honor bands and all-state bands. Those students often attend other schools for band.

But her biggest skill, her greatest superpower, one I have seen many teachers use and incorporate, but never to the extent I have seen in Julie…

She is a Master at Differentiation of Instruction!!!!!!

Let me say it again because it is unmatched by others…

She is a Master at Differentiation of Instruction!!!!!!

Every single student in every single class period receives music instruction geared toward them, individualized for them. And every single class has students across a broad range of abilities. Some students can sing and play instruments and follow rhythms with coaching and support. Some students may barely be able to hold and shake a shaker. Even the Bulldog Band had students of every ability.

Julie takes the time to understand each student’s strengths, weaknesses, goals, and interests and tailors her approach to ensure that students reach their full potential. This is powerful! Julie is Patient and Encouraging with her students. It’s easy for young people to be shy about trying something new. Because she has fostered an environment where students can feel comfortable making mistakes and learning from them, we had 100% participation with the students in our study of wind instruments and encouraged them to play on the mouthpieces and instruments.

Some students were barely able to make a buzzing sound on a trumpet mouthpiece. Others were able to learn and play 5 notes with some coaching. One advanced student learned the entire chromatic scale (and Careless Whisper) on an instrument she had never played before. (To be fair, this is an all-state band student who is already proficient on one instrument).

The highlight of the week for me was our last session with the Bulldog Band. I provided a master class geared specifically to one student who is preparing for an audition. The others listened attentively and asked great questions. When we were done with the master class, Julie asked me to play Havana for the students. The student who I was giving a master class to started playing with me. Julie went around handing a percussion instrument to each student. 

These students are all visually impaired, so they first “felt” that Julie had handed them an instrument. They accepted it from her and started joining in our jam. No questions. No hesitation. Whether she realizes it or not, this classroom environment of acceptance and taking risks was created by Julie! In a few spots, I called out “solo by _________” and the student jammed on an improvised solo. As a jazz educator, this warmed my heart. We all had a great time jamming and were sad when our time came to an end. 

This is what music is about! 

It’s not about the accolades. 

It’s not about having students become music majors or making it into select ensembles (although there’s nothing wrong with those things). 

It’s about connection and communication and taking students from where they’re at today  to the next level. 

Julie, I’m so proud of you! You get the Best Music Teacher of the Decade award. Take the month of July off for all your hard work! 

James is retired from full time teaching. He took on a half time teaching job to start a band program from scratch at a charter school. He is host of the Almost Everything I’ve Learned About Teaching Band podcast. He spends the other half of his time speaking, consulting with schools on their music programs, and creating curriculum like Jazz From The Start