Dunaire Elementary’s Globe-Trotting Musical Students Shine from National Stages and TV Shows to The White House

Few people have visited London, Paris, or Italy or auditioned for a national television show. Ms. Chelsea Cook’s students have.

Ms. Cook is the visionary music teacher at Dunaire Elementary School. In 2011, she formed a student xylophone group. Since then, the group has performed at prestigious venues such as the White House, the Midwest Clinic International Band and Orchestra Festival, and in Europe.

“It’s still surreal. It is really exciting, and I’m more excited for my students because we’re all a family,” said Ms. Cook. “My students and I have built a relationship and a special bond. I’m glad we can experience this together.”

This audition follows Ms. Cook’s recent appearance on The Kelly Clarkston Show. During Teacher Appreciation Week, Ms. Cook was recognized as “Best in Class” and received $5,000 from Scholastic and $5,000 from Kelly herself. Dunaire Elementary Principal Dr. Sean Deas said the funds will be used to purchase books for the school’s new book vending machine and support the school’s diverse community through fiction and nonfiction texts.

“These books will serve as gifts and resources for individualized learning, fostering self-efficacy, career aspirations, and intrinsic motivation,” said Dr. Deas. “In short, they will help our Little Dolphin continue to SPLASH while achieving academically and developing socially.”

During the show, Ms. Cook was pleasantly surprised by a special visit from her inspirational childhood teacher, Mr. Chester Griffin, who played a pivotal role in her music education journey. Ms. Cook graduated from the DeKalb School of the Arts in 2001, part of the DeKalb County School District. Her involvement in the school orchestra began in sixth grade, and her teacher, Mr. Griffin, inspired her.

“He introduced us to things I had never experienced before. He was the first teacher that took us outside the state of Georgia,” she said. “We traveled to Alabama, and we went to a festival in Florida. When I became a teacher, and these opportunities began to come to my front door, I said absolutely because Mr. Griffin gave us these opportunities. He was the one who really inspired me to give my students those same opportunities.”

After experiencing unfortunate circumstances derailing a potential career with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, Ms. Cook channeled her immense talents into becoming a music teacher in 2010 and has inspired students at Dunaire Elementary since 2011. Her principal praises her musical approach of introducing students to non-traditional music styles not commonly found in elementary schools.

“Ms. Cook brings creativity and auditory expression to the Dunaire community through music, opening doors for many students to explore communication through music and sound,” Dr. Deas said. “Students that have learned under her leadership to exude confidence in what they have learned, but without leaving out the discipline that can be found in a competent music program.”

Ms. Cook teaches her students about music using the Orff-Schulwerk teaching method. This developmental approach combines music, movement, drama, and speech into lessons similar to a child’s world of play. It was developed by the German composer Carl Orff and his colleague Gunild Keetman during the 1920s.

“We take the things that the children like to do naturally and teach them musical concepts that way,” said Ms. Cook. “The most important thing is I want kids to learn how to get comfortable with creating.”

One of Ms. Cook’s students in the xylophone group has helped arrange music for the group.

“This is how a lot of people make their money—by writing music,” she said. “Where do you think music composers come from? It starts at this level.”

The xylophone ensemble quickly gained notoriety after Ms. Cook uploaded videos of their performances to her social media pages. The grassroots exposure led to invitations to perform across the country and internationally, including at the same festival in Florida where she had performed as a student. Their remarkable success has also led to Ms. Cook being invited to teach her methods to other music teachers.

In January, she was in Arkansas at a clinic, teaching other music teachers about her teaching techniques, including a method where she turns nursery rhymes into hip-hop songs. While at the clinic, a Little Rock School District coordinator sang “Jack and Jill.” The song was so beautiful that Ms. Cook recorded and shared it on her social media pages. The video received over a million views.

The video caught the attention of the producers of The Kelly Clarkson Show and America’s Got Talent. Ms. Cook expressed her gratitude for the opportunities that have opened up for her and her students, and she hopes that it will continue to fuel their love of music.

“At this level, we want them to fall in love with music,” she said. “We want them to be life-long music makers, no matter what they are doing.”