Music teacher striking the right notes with elementary students

Scott Turner, KP News New Vaughn Elementary School music teacher Lisa Mills instructs her students to play Kpanlogo, a popular drum and dance piece from West Africa. Mills said the song has many “layers of rhythms called polyrhythms, woven together to create an intricate jigsaw puzzle of sound.” Photo by Scott Turner, KP News

When Lisa Mills took the job as music teacher at Vaughn Elementary School last fall, she had big shoes to fill.

She replaced Mary Farr, the school’s much loved music teacher who had retired after many years.

“Everyone loved Mary, so we knew we had our job cut out for us to find a good music teacher to take her place,” said Vaughn Principal Susan O’Leary.

But when Mills came for her interview, “… she blew us all away,”  O’Leary added flatly.

“She had a drum under one arm and a guitar under the other, and she had even written a song about Vaughn Elementary. We knew she was the one we had to have,” she said

Mills taught music in the South Kitsap system for 24 years before coming to Vaughn.

“It was a great job and I enjoyed it very much,” she said.

But she lives very near Vaughn Elementary, so when the local job opened up, she applied.

“I thought there must be something powerful about being part of a community and also being able to teach in that community. It’s a really cool thing,” Mills said with a smile.

It also was something of a homecoming for her. She went to Vaughn Elementary when she was in the second grade. “We had a wonderful music teacher here and I can still sing the songs that she taught us in the second grade.”

Mills starts the school year by teaching students how to drum. “It’s just being able to keep a beat, because the beat is essential to everything,” she said. “And it also teaches focus and how to control our attention.

“Then we begin to look at notating rhythm. And then we write little four-note rhythms and suddenly they’re playing their own music on their drum,” she said, moments before students entered her classroom.

The next step is the xylophone. A xylophone is like a drum, but with lots of options for playing different notes, Mills said.

“So then we start talking about notes in the staff and how we differentiate between the notes,” she said.

The first-, second- and third-graders are currently learning the notes on a staff and learning to play the xylophone.

Fourth- and fifth-graders add recorders and ukuleles to their musical mix.

“And we all do a lot of singing. My philosophy is if you can say it, you can sing it. And if you can sing it, you can play it. So we move from speech to putting it on their xylophone,” she said.

It’s obvious that Mills loves teaching as much as she loves music.

“It’s so invigorating to teach music,” she said. “Music is my passion. I think music is critical to every child’s education. It’s good for your self-esteem, it helps you focus, it allows for teamwork and it’s good for developing motor skills.”

And those are all things that carry over into math and science, she added.

The students at Vaughn love their new teacher.

“She’s a really fun music teacher, said Elijah Swissa, 10. “She’s very creative. She likes to play the piano and drum and she’s just a great teacher.”

Fifth-grader Jade Hoskins, 12, agreed. “She’s an awesome music teacher. I’ve been taking music classes since first grade and I just love her. I think if you like music, you should do it. Even if it’s just drumming –– you should do it.”

Jezzie Riley, 10, said that Mills has a great way of teaching that the kids really relate to.

“One time she told us to sing so that if people on the other side of the world heard us, they’d want to be an American, too. She’s really awesome and I really like her. I like everything about her,” Riley said.

And for Mills, the feeling is mutual. “The kids out here are fabulous and I’m blessed to be here teaching them,” she said.