"How Far We'll Go":
Interview with ETM-LA Music Teacher Westley Steele
ETM-LA’s Katie Boone and Sim Chopra caught up with Music Teacher Westley Steele to go behind the scenes on How Far We’ll Go. (Photo Above: Westley Steele conducts students performance Winter 2019 at El Dorado Elementary)
Can you share more about this exciting original graduation song project?
Andrew Lopez, 5th grade teacher at El Dorado Elementary, is very creative. He asked me to help him with a graduation song for the students. He said, “I want to figure out a way we can allow the kids to explore their experience at El Dorado.” The students had voted they wanted to use Disney Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go.” This was back in March before the pandemic had actually locked us in. When we were beginning the process of online classes, we had about 20 students on the Zoom call, and we just started drafting based off of the song and the flow of the lyrics. The students brainstormed ideas about when they were in kindergarten, playing outside, hanging out with friends, being in the lunchroom, science projects they did, etc. They threw ideas at me in the chat, and we locked in on the chorus. Then we started working on the first verse. Within a week they had a pretty solid first verse and chorus. It was pretty quick.
How did you continue supporting your students this semester during distance learning?
I was able to upload assignments through Google Classroom, mostly for music theory, whether it be learning treble and bass clef lines, notation, or counting rhythms. I also introduced students to a new online platform called Soundtrap, which is a digital audio workstation much like Pro Tools, Ableton Live, or Logic Pro. Students are able to learn without having to use an iPad. They were able to learn how to make a beat and compose their own tracks. It was good to engage students that way; kids are at home all the time but they’re not looking to just write all day. They want to do something fun and engaging, so that online presence made it a lot easier for me to work with the students. They would email me back their assignments and I would grade how well they did and comment on them. Going into the fall and even next year, we don’t know what the situation will be but I think we have a good start and foundation for online distance learning.
How did the idea of the graduation song originate and what was the inspiration behind it?
I give credit to Mr. Lopez; he chose the song from the movie. I had just watched the movie on Disney+ and thought it was a beautiful piece of music. For the lyrics, we originally wanted to have something that was very foundational for the kids. We wanted to build upon very concrete experiences from being kindergarteners to graduating and moving on to sixth grade. We always talk about them being successful and flying, and being [El Dorado] Eagles while they’re in class with me. So in the first verse, we said: “We’ve been students at El Dorado long as we can remember. Time is really flying by.” Every school year we continue to work in engaging the students but it always goes by so quickly, and this year was no exception. The students generally love Disney movies and I think Moana was something relatable. The students live in this smaller town outside of Los Angeles, but they have the entire city to learn about, to grow in, and to build their character with. Their K-5 experience is just a small stepping stone into what’s going to happen with them later on in life.
What did the process of working with the kids to brainstorm lyrics look like?
I had them first listen to the song “How Far I’ll Go” just to give them an idea of how the piece was going to flow and how the lyrics should flow with the music. They had all previously heard the song! I asked them, “What can we say about El Dorado that’s going to pinpoint your experience and give you the culmination you guys want?” They mentioned everything from their class subjects, to playing ukulele with me and music class, to singing at the [Winter Holiday] concert, to recess on the playground. We came up with the hook: “See the years we have spent at this school have taught us all we know, but it’s time to go. If we keep reading, writing, learning, and striving to meet our goals, if we work hard there’s no telling how far we’ll go.” It was just throwing in ideas and then organizing it later.
What was your ultimate goal with this project?
The original idea was to have the kids sing this song for their culmination but because of COVID-19, we weren’t able to have them perform it live in front of their family and friends. The ultimate goal was to teach them through creativity and songwriting how to produce a record professionally, from start to finish. El Dorado has been blessed in a way where they have been able to learn GarageBand because the kids have iPads in the classroom. I’ve been so honored to be able to teach them how to use that technology. It wasn’t just about the song but them experiencing the overall process of starting from the beginning of a project, learning the instrumentation, learning to produce and make the beat, and learning to add the lyrics to the song to complete the actual project.
How did you encourage students to express creativity in a virtual setting?
As artists, the only voice you have is your own. Even when we were writing the song with Mr. Lopez, I told my students, “This isn’t a matter of being perfect. This is just a matter of it being original. It just needs to feel what we’ve been seeing with you guys growing throughout the school year and before.” With a kid expressing creativity, you just want them to go out and have fun and be true to who they are as individuals. I think that’s what makes this experience so genuine. The kids were able to build their own creativity that they didn’t even know they had. They were at home on Zoom looking at boxes of their classmates, and they were still able to come up with ideas as though they were right in front of you, without any hesitation. I think that’s how we’re able to really encourage their creativity in a sense — no matter where you are in the world, you can build something and enjoy the process.
How did you overcome the challenges of teaching virtually?
I’m a very hands-on teacher. I love energy, and I like being in front of people. For me it was an uphill battle because I’m a technology guy, but I’m having to re-learn how to use the online structure for teaching with Google Classroom and Zoom meetings. It took a toll on me. I’m not used to having to push all of my energy into a computer. It was a challenge having to study, even going to YouTube, and watch other professors/teachers talk about how to use the platforms and engage the students. Having them feel your spirit over words is a whole new game, especially for arts teachers because we’re so needing to have energy bounced off of each individual in a room. That’s how we get the experience and how the kids get the experience, so having to reinvent that process took weeks. To be honest with you, I’m still learning how to use the platform but I will be way more prepared in the Fall and beyond, now that we’ve gone through this.
Why do you teach music?
I teach music because I genuinely love it. It’s just who I am in my soul. I’ve been blessed to have had experiences learning as a child, starting with piano at four years old, then being in group classes and seeing 5-7 year olds playing Beethoven sonatas. I think people just inspired me growing up. I was exposed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) marching bands — my mother took me to Virginia State University on weekends. We went to the football games and I sat behind the tuba and saxophone sections. From learning an instrument to learning how to write music in high school to majoring in music in college, all of it was a culmination of what I started when I was four years old. I want students to have the same experience that I had. I wanted them to feel engaged and understand what music does to your soul and your spirit. I want to be able to have that moment of clarity in their hearts. I remember my music teacher growing up, and how much they did for me and seeing the potential I had. I want to be able to do that for other kids who feel the same way, who want to grow and be musicians. It’s a joy to be able to play music and express yourself in that way, so that’s the reason why I teach.
How has teaching impacted you?
Teaching has impacted me in so many ways. When I started, I was a math tutor back in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Through mathematics, I was able to meet the music teachers at different schools. After teaching middle and high school for about five years, I decided to become a music teacher. I couldn’t help it but every time I was teaching another subject, my mind was just always on music. It felt like it wasn’t work to me; it felt genuine to me and I wanted to be able to give that gift of music to students across the country. So I started teaching music to kids at Franklin Military Academy in VA. From there, I got an opportunity to write music in Los Angeles, and started teaching with ETM-LA. You don’t know where your life is going to end up musically but I’m so happy that I’m able to be here doing what I love to do: inspiring people to be excited and optimistic about life. Music does that for me, and I hope the reflection of music is the same with them [the students] as well.
Can you share a story on how you’ve seen music impact a student(s)?
At another ETM-LA Partner School where I recently started teaching, I saw firsthand how playing and writing music gives students the courage to share their voices. One class assignment had the students write their own songs using three chords. Within a week, some groups started volunteering to come up in front of their class to present their song. They were very nervous about it because they had never felt so vulnerable, in the sense where they’re actually playing in front of their peers. Music is so deep because it discusses your story. They ended up doing really well and everyone became very brave with who they were with their identity and what they had come up with.
(Photo, L to R) Westley Steele, Victoria Lanier, El Dorado Principal Adan Martinez, Joseph Trapanese, Damon Carter, Booker White – June 2019; Guest Artist Trapanese discusses Film Composition with 5th Graders)