In Defense of a Pop Music Education

Peter Hobart Elementary music teacher Scyler Shearer leans into popular music as a way to teach the basics.

Kids dressed up as goats, trolls and Michael Jackson pack the risers in the Peter Hobart Elementary School gym, most of them distracted by the audience of parents, smartphones held high, seated a few yards away in metal folding chairs.

For this kindergarten and first-grade concert, music teacher Scyler Shearer has adapted Hans Christian Andersen’s Three Billy Goats Gruff into a musical called Gruff! One-third of the kids wears construction-paper goat ears. Another third wears construction-paper troll ears. The last third wears black fedoras. Each fedora’d kid also wears a single white glove, copping Michael Jackson’s trademark look.

Goats, trolls and MJs sing through New Kids on the Block, Nancy Sinatra and Flo Rida—Sinatra’s signature boots made for walkin’ changed to hooves, and Flo Rida’s “My House” an invitation from the troll to the goats to “have them over for dinner,” not to “have them for dinner.” For a finale, the lyrics of “Billie Jean” change to reflect the troll’s dismay at eating alone, spurned by wary goats.

Parents laugh and holler approval. Shearer uses pop to teach music because he remembers his own concert experiences as an elementary-age kid.

“There was this one year, it was like a Disney spectacular,” he says. The concert hit all the big movies coming out then: The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid. “The fact that we really enjoyed them and got to sing them in concert—it was more engaging” than, say, “Old Man River” or “Yankee Doodle.”

At St. Thomas University, Shearer titled his master’s thesis in elementary music education “The Validity of Pop Music in Public Education.” He compiled studies finding that kids connect best with material of some relevance to what they see and hear every day—in movies, on television or on the radio.

“If you meet kids where they’re at, with the music they already know, then that’s a bridge to link them, from what they know to what they need to know,” Shearer says—in this case, rhythm, melody, note reading and other basics. “This way, they feel ownership of the music. I had already believed this to be true, so to see studies and research confirming it—that was really powerful.”

He curates concerts of Meghan Trainor, Justin Timberlake and Katy Perry. But he also taps into the ’80s, the ’60s, the ’90s—stuff parents know. Singing a version of “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” by New Kids on the Block—lyrics changed to “We are the goats gruff”—the kids on the risers pose, arms crossed, and run through a few other fun-to-mock moves from the late-’80s boy band.

Third-grade teacher Meg Schauer collaborated with Shearer to choreograph the songs, having danced through elementary and high school herself. Before Shearer arrived at Peter Hobart in 2010, Schauer says, the school put on concerts for kindergarteners and third-graders only. “Now every kid at Peter Hobart has a concert every single year,” she says, noting that Shearer’s enthusiasm catches on with the students. “Kids who might not get involved in music or dance programs now really have this opportunity to perform at school.”

Shearer’s own choir teacher pointed him toward music. About to attend St. Olaf College as an undergraduate, Shearer intended to pursue photography. But his high school choir director pulled him aside, suggesting he would make a great teacher.

Now certified to teach music up to 12th grade, Shearer chose K–5 because “thinking back to elementary school, I remember so clearly standing up on the risers,” he says, “with all the audience watching, and just singing my heart out. I’m drawn to that aspect—the innocence, and the joyfulness.”