Music teacher jumps through hoops to teach students piano and voice

Monday, March 25, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Columbia resident Robin Anderson, who teaches voice and piano in Columbia, leads members of the Performing Arts in Children's Education Youth Theatre Company in warmups at rehearsal for the group's production of Disney's The Little Mermaid on Feb. 2. Anderson learned hula hoop dancing years ago as a way of challenging the students she teaches in private voice lessons.

COLUMBIA — Robin Anderson lays a pair of hula hoops on her driveway and pushes play on her iPod. 

She moves slowly to the opening notes of Florence and the Machine's "Shake It Out." Then as the beat picks up, she twists the hoop with her hands and weaves it around her waist.

Anderson moves like a dancer, twirling and threading the hoop under her feet and around her neck. 

She spins inside the hoop on pointed toes, the music winds down and she ends with a bow. 

Picking up the hula hoop

Hula hooping is relatively new for Anderson, 26, who teaches voice and piano. She picked it up as a tool to help her students learn how to set goals and learn certain techniques through movement or imagery.

"I think the worst thing that I can ask a student to do is just to stand still and not move and to experience music in a totally linear, stagnant way," Anderson said. "That's not necessarily how music is learned."

For students who struggle with "their solo self versus their choir self," Anderson arranges two hoops on the ground, one to represent choir and a bigger one for the self.

She asks them to stand first in the choir hoop, then step into the other hoop and visualize a grander platform where they can experiment.

"The solo hoop is bigger so they can sing bigger, they can do things bigger and they can take risks," she said.

Using the hula hoop is only one approach she takes to get her students into the right spot to experience growth. Anderson teaches private lessons from her home studio, in classes at Gentry Middle School and through multiple music organizations in Columbia.

Sometimes, she has the students crawl or lie on the floor, throw Frisbees or perform jumping jacks to release a particular vocal sound. To encourage them to be more expressive, she will sing while they make faces.

“Whatever it takes to get a certain sound or to get someone to do something or feel something completely different, I will do,” she said.

Lee Ann Jestis said her daughter, Kayla, 11, has benefitted from this offbeat teaching style.

Kayla is one of Anderson's private voice and piano students and performed in the Performing Arts in Children's Education production of “The Little Mermaid,” for which Anderson was the music director.

“Kayla has ADHD, and so Robin keeps the lessons very energetic and kind of moving around so that we’re not getting bored with one thing or the other,” Jestis said.

“She gets to know the kid and kind of learns their learning style, and then modifies her lessons to that child, which is really good for Kayla.”

Anderson suggests pieces for Kayla but also seeks her opinion to make learning more collaborative.

“I’ve been switching teachers for a while, and I was really nervous when I switched from my old teacher to her, but after a few weeks I was just, like, ‘Man, this is way better,’” Kayla said.

“She’ll just take something that you’ll think might be completely random, and it’s a new thought for how she’s going to teach the kids,” Jestis said.

Known for her determination

Anderson was introduced to hula hooping during a break in graduate school in the summer of 2011.

"We would meet up every now and then, and we would hula-hoop in Peace Park right off campus," said Jenny Wynn, who introduced Anderson to hooping.

"Every time I'd be like, 'Wow!' because she'd show me something new that she had learned all by herself. She was always progressing."

At the time, some of Anderson's own students were struggling to organize their time and practice efficiently, and she immediately saw a teaching opportunity.

“It’s a process that is exactly like what I do with my students,” she said.

She told them she was going to learn to hoop. Although some were skeptical, she devised a practice schedule and set to work, giving them progress updates along the way via videotapes.

That way, Anderson said she could show them an end result, then step back and teach them how to break up the steps to reach that point. She could relate to their challenges and teach her students how to move past them. 

Trent Rash, a music instructor at Stephens College,  often collaborates with Anderson for group activities for her students. He said hula hooping helped reveal a more artistic side of Anderson, which she has been able to apply to teaching.

"She has that natural personality of a very practical, analytical person, but the hooping brought out of her this sort of creative, artistic side," Rash said. " When you're teaching voice like we do, one of the things you really stress with students is that both of those parts are important."

A lifelong process

Anderson began playing piano around the age of 10 — late in the world of music, she said — on an old, out-of-tune piano in her family’s garage in Chicago.

“Every time I wanted to practice, I had to bundle up, put my gloves on,” she said.

When her family moved to Jefferson City, her parents gave her the baby grand piano that now sits in her studio.

Anderson continued to study piano and began teaching privately in 2008, while pursuing her undergraduate degree at MU. Through her private business, she teaches 30 students, all of different ages and levels.

“I learn something new from every one of my students,” she said. “I’m only now starting to realize how much learning is a lifelong process.”

Anderson said she loves to have constant change in her life. It's what led her to learn to hula hoop. It's led her to continuously learn other new skills, such as tap dancing last fall.

It influences her teaching methods and may lead to a doctorate in education.

"That, to me, is probably an inevitable part of my future," Anderson said. "The thinking and the writing and trying to change the system, whatever the system may be, for the better."

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