COLUMBIA — Inside Benton Elementary School’s Trailer D, a poster of Beethoven hangs beside one of Beyonce.
Robert Battle, the music teacher at Benton and Cedar Ridge elementary schools, sees value in both the new and the old.
Battle joined Benton and Cedar Ridge elementary schools this year as their music teacher.
Rather than get into a predictable “comfort zone” as a teacher, he sees teaching music at two different schools as a way to keep him on his toes.
“Working here provides the opportunity that I’m always thinking about something new,” he said.
“I’m always trying new ways of doing things, and I like that. I like the creativity, and I like the freedom.”
By teaching the classics to modern pop, Battle gives students a traditional foundation but also dips into the popular music students love. He plans age-appropriate lessons that let them practice the songs they know, as well as challenge them with a harder repertoire.
One recent school day, he stood casually behind a piano as he played the chords to Benton Elementary’s school song, which he wrote at the beginning of the year.
“Benton Bees, hard at work, sharing love for all its worth," two of his students sang.
"Leading, caring and learning through discovery. Benton is the place to be.”
Battle said Columbia schools focus on singing as the core of its music education program. He hopes to not only teach good singing techniques to his students but also keep them entertained and interested in the songs.
“A lot of the time music education is put on the back burner to whatever big singing TV show is happening, be that ‘American Idol’ or ‘Glee’ or ‘The Sing Off,’ ” he said.
“Kids think (those shows) are really cool, and then they come to school and think, ‘Well, this isn’t as cool as that.’”
Battle said his comfort lies in teaching good diction, tone quality and vocal projection. So far, he has seen great results, especially in his second-graders, who are “singing like maniacs.”
At the Benton Elementary school concert in December, his students got the chance to show off what they’ve learned so far, with some of them singing holiday carols in Hebrew and Nigerian.
Teaching culture through music has also been a major part of Battle’s classroom approach. In February, Benton Elementary will have a concert inspired by African, Caribbean and Mexican cultures.
“We have a huge diverse student population, and I want to touch on all of that, which means I throw a lot of myself into it,” he said.
Other plans for next semester include an African drumming circle in January, guitar unit and “Music Studio,” where students will learn to write music and incorporate iPad recording software into their work.
“The students will be able to write their own music and share that and show that, which I think will be the foundations of them being able to write as they get older,” he said.
Battle began to write music at a young age, while studying at Ames Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School, a magnet program in St. Louis.
“We were writing musicals in second grade and third grade. We wrote operas in fourth and fifth grade, and when you got to sixth grade, they told us to go away and write,” he said.
He also sang in “hundreds of choirs,” learned art in a variety of media and explored drama and dance.
The decision to go into teaching music as a profession came early for Battle. His music teacher, Beverly Whittington, took his first-grade class to Powell Symphony Hall to see the Boys Choir of Harlem perform.
“That’s when I knew I wanted to do it,” Battle said. “I thought it was so cool, and I always applaud her for all the efforts she made and all the things she did for us.”
Whittington, who is still teaching at Ames Visual and Performing Arts Elementary, said Battle always displayed great talent and drive.
"He was such a star to begin with," she said. "He’d put himself into it. He’d become the character, become the music. That you don’t see all the time. Sometimes it's falsified, but with Robert? Never.”
Whittington continues to inspire Battle, and he said he tries to recreate the kinds of experiences she gave him for his own kids to prove that elementary music education doesn’t have to be boring or overly-aggressive.
“Why does it have to be cute? Why can’t it be beautiful?” he said. “Kids can sing beautifully, we just have to make them believe they can.”
Battle said he looks forward to many more years teaching at Benton and Cedar Ridge.
“I love my job, I love my kids,” he said. “I am under the impression that I teach the smartest kids in Columbia, and I will say that a million times over.”