As a teenager in a sea of 4,000 students at Staten Island’s Tottenville High school, Joella DeLisi Melnikov found her niche in the music room.
“In the music room, you knew everybody,” recalls Melnikov, now 36. “There’s really nothing like sitting in the middle of an orchestra or band … and feeling the music and being surrounded by everyone around you.”
At age nine, Melnikov picked up the clarinet, setting off a love of music that led to two separate music degrees and a number of professional gigs. She often taught private lessons on the side to students who complained that there were few public music classes available to them.
That gave Melnikov a sense of mission when she began teaching music in the city’s public schools — a job she landed (part-time at first) through the city’s Arts Matter program, an effort to expand access to arts education.
Now, as a full-time teacher at P.S./I.S. 121 Nelson Rockefeller in Brooklyn, she is hoping to help her students feel connected to school through music, and inspire a few musicians in the process.
This interview has been lightly edited.
One word or short phrase you use to describe your teaching style:
Energetic. I am always excited to try new things and take risks with the kids, and we feed off of each other’s energy and enthusiasm.
Why did you become a teacher?
Learning music in public school changed my life. I wanted to give that same opportunity to other children.
What does your classroom look like?
My classroom is a completely hands-on room, where all of the instruments are laid out all around you. The students are able to pick up whichever instrument they’re currently working on and jump right into a rehearsal. Even the students as young as kindergarten are able to take out the rhythm instruments and share them with the class.
Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________.
The students are constantly asking to learn new songs or to try out new things. We can quickly pull up anything they are interested in and try it out right away.
What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
Modern Rock Band. I took the Little Kids Rock workshop, [which helps teachers learn to use music students already listen to], and they introduced the Modern Rock Band curriculum. It is the easiest and quickest way to get students who don’t even know how to hold an instrument to begin playing songs that they recognize and can sing along to. The students sound like a real rock band within just a few lessons.
How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?
I first try to understand what it is they’re having trouble with. If I try explaining it a different way and they’re still struggling, I ask one of their classmates to help. They often have a way of explaining things from their own viewpoint that they understand much better from each other.
How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
If the whole class needs to be brought back to attention, I’ll pick up a guitar and start playing a song. One or two more students might join in, and the rest of the class will enjoy the short performance. Then I remind them that this is what we’re working toward, and get them back to work. If I just have one or two students having trouble paying attention, I’ll put them in charge of helping another student. They really enjoy taking ownership of their skills and knowledge.
How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I try to be very real with my students. They see that I’m a person too, and I make mistakes. We have a motto in our classroom: Respect yourself, each other, and the instruments. I treat them like young adults, and they give me the same respect. They also like to read the inspirational posters we have hanging in the room like: “It’s okay to make a mistake when you’ve tried. It’s a mistake not to try.”
We talk about how it’s inevitable that we’re going to make a mistake, because we’re trying new things. And we may even feel embarrassed now and then. But we’re all in this together. When someone is struggling, I can hear them calling out and quoting that poster to each other. The music room is a safe place for a lot of them. They stop by when they’re having a rough day, and they know they won’t be judged here.
Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
I had a student who had a very different home life from what I had imagined. When he often forgot his instrument and lost his music, I assumed he just wasn’t that interested. I learned that he was often going to a different house each night, and he was doing his best to overcome his own obstacles. I invited him to come rehearse with me during lunch, and gave him a second set of instruments and music to keep at school. He became one of my best musicians that year.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
Tomorrow is another day. Even if everything goes completely wrong, we can try it all again tomorrow. A bad dress rehearsal often precedes an amazing performance.