Welcome to MMI’s Fellow Spotlight series featuring our amazing teaching artists. Not only do MMI Fellows lend their talents to supporting and engaging Memphis youth all over the city, but they also help build and sustain our arts ecosystem through their independent projects.

Today, meet violinist and violist Rachel Johnson! Rachel is a string instrument expert who works with students at Bellevue Middle School, Kingsbury Middle School, and Middle College High School. In addition to working with MMI youth, Rachel teaches private lessons, and is the founder of her own music nonprofit, which focuses on bringing music to students around the globe. She recently chatted with MMI about why everyone should have access to music, how to meet students where they are, and why virtual learning isn’t as difficult as people think. 


I grew up in South Memphis, but went to school at Overton High School. So, I traveled every day, long drives to East Memphis and to Overton, where I played viola in the orchestra. That was really my main purpose for going to school—to be in music class and be in orchestra.

I play all the string instruments, but mostly viola and violin. I started playing music when I was in middle school, at John P. Freeman.


On the importance of mentorship

I was able to really explore my passion for music thanks, in part, to a mentor I had when I was 16 or 17. She was at the University of Memphis. I came out to U of M early in the evenings before rehearsal because you had to get a ride when you had to get a ride! She really motivated me, took me under her wing, and would take me to concerts and show me the musician lifestyle. She really pushed me to be more competitive, which is something that I’m not naturally.

Around age 15 or 16, I started to get more gigs, and play in different ensembles around the city. I think that was my awakening. I realized, “Oh, I want to do this for real.”
I ended up getting a full academic scholarship to college—I got some music money, too. And then I traveled. I wanted to experience music from different cultures and perspectives.

While I was in undergrad, I got the chance to go to Italy. I studied music theory, performance, and music history. When I came back to the U.S. I started working with at risk youth at Youth Villages. They would have these drummer circles, and I really got into wanting to help more kids through music.

Today, I work with a lot of different nonprofits, and teach music in schools.


On Music as a Global Resource

I really care about the overall, cultural, global music community.

That’s why I started my own nonprofit in January 2018. I visited Jamaica because I have some family and friends who live there and I traveled to this town called Negril. The children there didn’t have shoes to wear to school, and they’re working from the age of six in markets. They have no experience with instruments, no idea of what it could be like to even hold an instrument.

I started to partner with the rotary club there, to go and teach music. We were supposed to start this past spring, but then the pandemic hit. We had collected so many donations from different churches, and my own church, Union Baptist, to take to Jamaica. We wound up sending them over instead. We didn’t get a chance to go and teach, but I hope that this summer we will. We’re going to go over there and we’re going to teach those kids music no matter what.


On Creativity In The Classroom

I always try to reach my students where they are.

Most of the time, classical music is what they teach in schools. They don’t really give you the opportunity to learn jazz violin, for example. They just really drill classical music over and over again. They don’t teach students how to become actual real musicians and entrepreneurs who can be creative and improvise.

I really struggle with pushing out memorization models to my students. That was something I struggled with in my own artistic journey, as well. I just knew the excerpts that I was supposed to learn, the scales, and that’s it. Nobody really taught me how to create. I was never taught how to find my voice through my own art, and I had to learn it on my own.

In my classes, I try to encourage improvisation. I encourage students to listen to other artists. I encourage them to put on a music-only track, and then improvise over that. Just to play what they feel.

I think my method of teaching is definitely non-traditional. I feel like music should always be taught with a liberation mindset, and should be freeing, not keep you contained. Otherwise, it takes away your creative voice.


On making the most of virtual learning

Teaching online really isn’t as bad as people think. The students that are coming to classes are relatively engaged.

It’s maybe a little more difficult when it comes to performance, but when you’re working with students, you can still have break-out groups and one-on-one virtual lessons. You can have them record. You could teach them about recording themselves. A lot of kids feel more comfortable with that anyway. They’ll say, “Before I send it to you, I’ll record myself first.”

It teaches them to practice and teaches them to listen to themselves. I don’t see anything wrong with it, and it works for now. It takes the personalization out of some things, but kids are learning.

I taught virtually this past summer, too. And I helped create the 901 Music Education Hub website with Shelby County. It’s a platform that gives teachers resources on how to teach virtually—lesson plans and the like. The 901 Music Ed Hub YouTube channel also has videos that other teachers have made for beginner band.

Of course, some students have an easier time with virtual learning than others. Some students rely on school for socialization more than others. I think those students are struggling a little bit—they’re also the ones who are always always talking in class, because that’s their time to get to talk to somebody who wants to hear. Who shows interest in their interests. So, we have our own little virtual user community, which is unique and neat and just for them.

Other students are not really bothered as much by having to be out of school. But I begin every class with a quick temperature check.


On planning for the future

Right now my goal is to develop the infrastructure for my nonprofit to be able to travel to and teach in Jamaica. I’m hoping to be able to help and have volunteers come with me to teach. We’re aiming for Summer 2021.

After that, I don’t know. For me, musically, I don’t know when or where performance is going to happen. But I’ve always been a teacher anyway.

I haven’t been all that creative during quarantine, in terms of my own music. Most of my time has been spent being a teaching artist. I’m spending time creating curriculum, working on stuff to try to help other teachers who don’t have the time to figure out a lesson that’s going to be engaging.

I think, whether you’re teaching in-person or online, you have to be adaptable. You don’t want to ask students to learn a song that they can’t even connect to. That’s really what I’ve been working on—just researching and trying to understand what kids actually want to learn and how they learn.

If you keep teaching the same old way, you’re going to have the same old problems, which is what I always hear from public school teachers who have been teaching for years. As an educator, you have to change. You have to evolve. You can’t stunt a child’s growth just because of your lack of wanting to evolve yourself.

You have to constantly be moving forward.