Iowa City students finding math in music

Artist in Residence Henry Cardenas helping kids see numbers differently

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IOWA CITY — When thinking of music, the first thing that comes to mind likely isn’t math — but as this year’s M.C. Ginsberg Artist in Residence, Henry Cardenas has combined the two in his curriculum for Iowa City fifth-graders.

From November through early May, Cardenas — a musician originally from New York studying elementary education at the University of Iowa — is spending two hours each week at elementary schools in the Iowa City Community School District teaching math concepts through music production.

Earlier this month, Cardenas visited Hills Elementary, where students equipped with headphones and personal laptops created tracks of electronic music using a free online program called Audiotool. Students compiled drum beats with vocal tracks and other instrumentals, resulting in a unique track of their own.

Students may not have noticed, but while making music, they were also learning about math through topics such as rhythm and tempo.

“Music has a strong relationship with math,” Cardenas said. “You can distill it down to patterns and numbers — keeping rhythm requires understanding of fractions and decimals, for example — it’s just rewiring them to understand it in a different way. ... It helps them see numbers differently.”

At the end of the class, Cardenas asked if any of the students wanted to share their work. Hands shot up in excitement.

“They had a lot of fun,” said Michelle Harbison, their teacher. “They loved his lesson and are very proud of what they have put together.”

Harbison said that even after class, students continued to work on their projects at home and were excited to come back to class two days later to show Cardenas what they’d created.

“I think it’s wonderful that we have these types of opportunities for students and that their interests could lead to a career,” Harbison said.

Cardenas’ curriculum is modeled after another program he worked with in New York City called Building Beats, a nonprofit that provides DJ and music programs to undeserved youth in Brooklyn. The idea is to teach entrepreneurial, leadership and life skills and to make the music creating process accessible and fun for students. Cardenas wanted to take a similar approach to teaching music in Iowa, but unlike Building Beats, which has several weeks to teach students, Cardenas has only two sessions, usually about an hour or so each.

“I can’t show them the complicated things they could do,” Cardenas said. But with pre-made tracks to kick start a project, they’re able to create short tracks and learn the basics. If they decide they want to learn more, they can continue to use their login to Audiotool at home.

Cardenas was selected as this year’s artist in residence by Debbie Yarrow, coordinator of the Iowa City school district’s Any Given Child, a program of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., that is meant to assist communities in providing arts education for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Iowa City was selected as an Any Given Child site in 2012, joining 23 cities across the nation.

The M.C. Ginsberg Jewelers Community Arts Program has been supporting local artists with the artist in residence program since 1991. The program is administered by the school district and pays the artist $50 per hour.

Mark Ginsberg, owner of M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art and founder of the program, believes art completes an education and should be a mandatory part of school curricula — not an elective.

Art and music classes are “unfortunately being eliminated from our public school system,” Ginsberg said.

But, he added, art is a “common tie that binds all of these programs — math, science, social studies, etc. — together and makes you a better mathmetician or scientist because you seem to think outside the box when you apply art to a solution. ... Art unencumbers the brain. There’s nothing formulaic about it.”

Cardenas hopes to become a general education teacher after graduating, but wants to incorporate music lessons throughout the general curriculum.

“Creative output is essential to child development,” Cardenas said. “Everyone needs a release, a way to express themselves.”

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