Music Teacher Shelby Montgomery Finds New Ways to Excite Students Amid Pandemic

Music Teacher Shelby Montgomery Finds New Ways to Excite Students Amid Pandemic

Photo of music teacher Shelby Montgomery

The pandemic has cancelled concerts and conferences, but it’s done nothing to diminish Shelby Montgomery’s determination.

This school year, Montgomery, who teaches music at both George Jenkins High and Lakeland Highlands Middle, has led her students through a pair of innovative projects: learning about inequality through the lens of music, and collaborating with a professional composer to create an original work.

She says the projects were designed to help her students have a deeper connection with music at a time when many of their “normal” experiences have been taken away.

“I had a great middle and high school music experience. I learned more than music; I learned life skills,” said Montgomery, who grew up in Brevard County.

“Even during the pandemic, that’s what I’m trying to do here: teach my students lessons they’ll carry with them long after they graduate, and even if they choose to stop playing music one day.”

Both of Montgomery’s projects were made possible thanks to grants from Universal Studios and the Polk Education Association.

The first allowed her to purchase 40 pieces of music composed by women and people of color. She began introducing the works last fall amid ongoing national conversations about racial injustice.

The timing has proven fortuitous.

“It’s given us opportunities to talk about current events and relate them back to music. We’ve talked about how professional orchestras play Beethoven so much more than the works of other composers, and why that is. It’s given my students a safe space to talk about things that are happening in the world and the things that are on their mind,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery added that her students have developed a newfound appreciation for classical music through the diversity project.

“They’re playing music by people who look like them. That matters, they matter, and the music matters,” she said.

The second of Montgomery’s projects, conducted last fall, gave her students the chance to collaborate with local composer Larry Clark on an original piece created specifically for them.

Clark, Montgomery and her students met via video conference to discuss the students’ ability levels and what they wanted from the piece; the students requested “dark melodies.” The students also got to name the piece, deciding on “Oblivion.”

“This was a great experience for the students to be part of that side of the creative process of music,” Montgomery said. “They got to see the piece come together from start to finish.”

In addition to these recent pursuits, Montgomery also started “Rockestra” several years ago. During the “Rockestra” portion of her classes, students play acoustic versions of pop music.

“It’s the carrot I dangle to get them hooked on classical music,” Montgomery said. “They really enjoy it.”

Montgomery’s ceaseless creativity, even during an especially difficult school year, is ensuring she provides the kind of music experience she received as a student — the kind her students will never forget.

“I love having Ms. Montgomery as a teacher because she provides me a safe place, and I am able to be myself in her class,” said Ben Daoheuang, a sophomore.

Added sophomore Nicholas Chalise:

“I like having Ms. Montgomery as my teacher, because her classroom is a safe and accepting environment for all students.”