A Practitioner Inside And Outside The Classroom: An Interview With Barbara Murray

Barbara Murray has witnessed the power of music firsthand, seeing it change the lives of students throughout over forty years as an educator and then as an administrator in New York City’s public schools. 

After becoming a tenured teacher early on in her career, she lived abroad for five years and taught in The American Overseas School of Rome, then came back to the United States to return to teaching in her home of New York City (while working weekends as a flight attendant for Italian-bound lines).  She is now the Director of Music for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Arts and Special Projects, overseeing the rich and varied music programming throughout the city.

Berklee City Music was thrilled to speak with Ms. Murray and learn more about her career and her outlook on music education.


When did you decide you wanted to teach?

I have always wanted to teach and always knew I was going to be a teacher.  Having grown up in a home where the church was very important, I was always involved in choir. When I was about fifteen years old, I started directing the youth choir.  I just always wanted to be in that position: I loved teaching music, loved talking about music and getting people who loved to sing, but didn’t know about singing or didn’t know repertoire, to learn new things. It was always fun.  I also loved watching conductors and still do. It fascinates me.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue a leadership role in education?

By the early nineties, I realized I had accrued a lot of years in this business, and the people around me were getting younger, so maybe I had something to share in terms of what I’ve seen and learned, maybe I’ll get an administrative license and become an assistant principal. My principal at the time encouraged me, and by 1995 I had my license and was asked to take a position in my school, William Cullen Bryant High School.  I never thought that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, but school based supervision was certainly something I thought I would enjoy, and I did.

You became Director of Music for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Arts and Special Projects in 2005.  What changes in music education stand out for you since taking on your current position?

In 2005, music teachers talked about music instruction specifically related to music making.  Professional development workshops dealt mostly with how to accomplish a musical step, like getting a soprano to sing or how to correct embouchure.  We would ask Jon Faddis to demonstrate for trumpeters, or Bobby Sanabria for percussionists.

Music teachers are now part of the larger conversation about instruction.  Music teachers are asked to share in the conversation about general literacy.  We are asked to use the same strategies that English, Math and Social Studies teachers take in approaching learning.  So we’re also talking about backward design, Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Danielson and other things that “teacher generalists” know about. Music teachers are now asked to dwell in that world.  It’s both good and maybe a challenge for some.  Music teachers are asking for that because they are being held accountable in that way.  My professional development experience is as a leader and I still think of myself as a practitioner (even though I don’t have a class).

You judged the 2013 Music Education Hackathon, collaboration between the NYC Department of Education and Spotify that gave students twenty-four hours to develop innovative new music technologies for NYC public schools. What do you see as the role of technology with regards to music education?

Technology is part and parcel.  Of course the outside world embraced music technology as a compositional tool and general framework for making music.  K-12 public education is slower due to resources and the bureaucratic approach to getting things done.  By and large our schools are not particularly wired well for easy use of technology.  Using a smart board is not necessarily what people should be bragging about when they say they are using technology.  If you’re using technology or technological approaches to create new work, then you’re maximizing it.

If we are really going to capture the imagination and minds of our kids, now and going forward, we have got to think differently about technology and its use.  That thinking has to start at the highest levels of education because it filters downs to the classroom. You can’t make it happen if you don’t have the tools or the infrastructure.

You also worked with The Chantels, both singing and writing music for them.  What do you see as the role of popular music in music education?

For me, pop music for me was my bread and butter. Pop music is the music of the people.  It’s accessible, it’s something we share easily, and it’s the driver for a lot of people’s connection to music.  I still download R&B and I love cheesy pop songs.  I bought Miley Cyrus’s The Climb, spent part of my salary on that!

Beyond raising test scores, what does music bring to a young persons life?

Music is a voice.  It is a way of expressing that which cannot be expressed.  As a young adolescent and having worked with adolescents all these years, on a personal level it is like your secret friend or something you share with others. When sharing with others, you have the satisfaction of having a common language.

It is a mechanism for saying who you are in the world and also experiencing someone else’s world, learning about someone’ else’s way of thinking or culture.  It helps you grow up, sometimes in ways that people might not think appropriate.  It gives you identity when you might not feel you have an identity.  We know that rap music grew out of that place, expressing something in a particular way that was dangerous to express verbally without a beat in back of it.

Music is a friend.  For me, it was that personal.  Kids still use it that way, as a place to go when you need to have a conversation with the world or with yourself.  It’s what art does, and it always will.

Interviewed by Andrew Sammut, Registrar Extraordinaire, Berklee City Music


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