Teacher Hub

Meet the Teacher - Chris Koelma, MTIIS

Written by Anna Gower04/03/24

Can you tell us about your earliest musical experiences and how you got into music?

Some of my earliest musical experiences were dancing along to my Dad and Grandfather playing 4 hands on the piano. I thought it was magic! I also remember my Dad playing piano every night after he got home from work. It was like therapy for him. He played pretty much everything by ear and was constantly noodling and making up tunes. I took piano lessons at about 5-6 but wasn’t much of a fan - the lessons didn’t last long. I also remember singing together with my 3 brothers in the back of the car (it was definitely not traditional ‘4-part’: one of the bro’s beatboxed, one sang bass, one whistled a riff, and one of us sang the melody).

I truly got into music at around age 14. I was a mad football player and didn’t have time for much else with all of the training. Mum encouraged me to pick up another hobby as a bit of an outlet. I loved music so playing an instrument made sense. Some of my school buddies were playing guitar and drums in bands and so I became interested in that. We also went to a contemporary church where they had rock, pop, jazz and gospel style music in the services. Naturally, I wanted to be in the church bands. As well as piano, Dad played bass so that became the obvious instrument choice for me. Dad would sit at the piano playing a jazz standard or an Elton John track and would scribble the root notes on a piece of paper or call them over his shoulder. I slowly learnt my way around the neck and I also learnt to make things up if I didn’t quite catch a chord (or if he was too engrossed in his playing to remember to call out a note!)

At age 15 I tore my anterior cruciate ligament playing football. It meant 9 months of recovery and absolutely no football. I quickly decided to transfer all of my energy from football into playing the bass. Ironically, playing music most definitely became my ‘outlet’ during the recovery. It soon became much more than an outlet. It became my everything.

What did you do in music during school?

I barely remember any music in primary school. When I think of my experience of primary music today, all I can recall is the ‘Flying purple people eater’ song 🤷

Year 7-8 music in an Australian state school was copying things out of a textbook and watching Annie and Grease over and over. By the time music became an elective (Year 9 - 10) we started doing some cool stuff. This included lots of ‘prac’ (practical lessons) where we would jam with friends and learn our favourite songs. I don’t remember much else!

Year 11-12 music was more rigorous, but still centred on performance, some composition and lots of listening and aural analysis. It’s safe to say that I loved music at this point. I had an amazing teacher, Mrs Rankin, and couldn’t wait for the next music lesson. I had such a great group of friends and we jammed and performed a LOT.

How did you get into teaching?

I was interested in teaching from quite a young age. Initially, I wanted to be a PE teacher, but this quickly transitioned to wanting to teach music. In Year 11 at school, I opened a private bass guitar tuition centre. I loved seeing young people grow to love the bass and was passionate about education and student-centred learning. I didn’t quite have the vocab for it then, but I knew there was incredible power in allowing people to pursue the music they wanted to learn. My job was to facilitate that discovery. I continued with the tuition business throughout my undergrad degree and had about 45 students at one point.

Choosing to study music education was simply an extension of my reality. I wanted to understand how to be the ‘best’ teacher I could be, to help others find a connection to music like I had, to facilitate deep learning in an area that I felt could be so critical to expression and wellbeing.

What experiences did you have teaching overseas?

My first overseas teaching experience was in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My wife (also a music teacher at the time) and I were excited to travel and we knew international schools were our ticket to that life.

We lived and worked for 3 years in Argentina, which was a truly life-changing experience in every way. When the Argentine economy crashed in 2012/13 we decided to move, albeit reluctantly. The next location was Malaysia where we stayed happily for 8 years.

How did Music Teachers In International Schools come about?

MTIIS came about because I realised there was no truly global network for international school music teachers. I’d been connected to some regional organisations during my time in both Argentina and Malaysia, but knew there could be more. As a head of music in a Malaysian ‘international’ school, I kept thinking: ‘I’m working in an “international” school yet I have no idea what is going on in other international schools outside of my region…surely there is merit in connecting everyone together to help us become a truly connected international community’. I was also a bit disillusioned as to why ‘international’ schools were not very international! As an Australian working in Malaysia, I felt like I was working in a British private school, rather than anything that represented an ‘international’ ideology. Since then, my understanding of the reason why ‘international’ is placed in a school name has evolved quite a lot (you can read more about that via the MTIIS community principles), but the mission remains the same: create a space for international school music teachers to find connection and explore innovative pedagogies.

Can you tell us about the Roland deal and how that works?

Roland has had a long-standing connection with ‘informal learning’ and Musical Futures International (MFI). Over the last year or so, MTIIS and MFI have been working together to continue bringing innovative professional learning events to international school music teacher communities around the world. Through this partnership I was introduced to the team at Roland as they were keen to support some work I was doing to support teachers with bringing ‘live looping’ pedals into the school music programs. During these discussions we started exploring other avenues, including a range of other tools and instruments that Roland had been developing. I had been toying with a new application of informal learning pedagogy that centred on the introduction of electronic music into schools. We quickly saw the incredible potential of the Roland AIRA Compact devices as tools for facilitating this learning. I have now been delivering workshops around the world using these devices and have seen incredible levels of engagement, deep learning and excitement from students. We have been trialling a number of approaches and plan to continue rolling this out in 2024!

What are the Big Gigs?

The Big Gig is a professional learning event for international school music teachers run by MTIIS and MFI. The Big Gig aims to bring teachers together to connect, deconstruct their pedagogy and explore new ideas, with a particular focus on informal and aural music learning. We have hosted Big Gigs in Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and India in the last 12 months. These events are, as the name suggests, all about professional learning that is focused on actually making music just like you would at any gig. We know that our school students love to ‘learn by doing’ and we believe that adults appreciate learning in this way as well. The Big Gig encourages participants to sing, move, rap, scratch, sample, edit, loop, trigger, arrange, compose and play. We want every event to be an exciting and practical space for learning and connection. We don’t want teachers using their valuable PD time sitting in chairs listening to endless ‘talks’. We want them to make music, collaborate and be challenged and inspired to walk away with valuable resources that they can take into the classroom the next day.

What are your plans for the next few years?

The plan is to continue doing more of the same! Provide content and opportunities for international school music teachers to connect and learn. There are also a number of new projects in the pipeline, including a book on Music Technology Pathways for teachers, co-authored with Samuel Wright, and more resources to help support teachers as they bring electronic music into the classroom.

Chris was chatting to Anna Gower.