Saturday, December 11, 2010

Friday Morning Rock Band

Rod Crist teaches Eric, one of our 5th graders, the electric bass

During my Abreu Fellowship last year, I had the opportunity to travel to Venezuela to observe how each music center or "nucleo" reflected the unique culture and needs of its community.  El Sistema capitalizes on the social experience of ensemble to motivate students, and throughout my two-month travels there, I saw ensembles of all kinds, many of which took place in the same center including folk, classical, choral, jazz and percussion.  Witnessing such a variety of ensembles shattered any preconceived notion I had that El Sistema was purely an orchestral program.

What inspired me the most was the ability of each nucleo to find opportunities for these ensembles to play together.  Instruments that I had never imagined playing alongside one another were doing so effortlessly.  I remember vividly a community concert of 500 musicians performing the Venezuelan national anthem - choir accompanied by a full orchestra and a Venezuelan folk ensemble strumming alongside them.   El Sistema removed any musical barriers that might have existed between these distinct ensembles and demonstrated beautifully the unifying power of music.  Thanks to my time in Venezuela, I came back to Juneau with an entirely different vision of what ensemble might look like in Juneau.  Thank you, FENOJIV, for this wonderful gift.

Standing with members of a Venezuelan Folk Ensemble
At Glacier Valley, we already had a guitar club and morning band, but the two groups had never played together.  My trip to Venezuela changed all of that.  When I returned to Juneau,  I talked with Rod Crist, guitar club instructor, about ways to bring these two ensembles together in a meaningful way.  I shared with him my visit to a Boston school, where an entire 5th grade class played in a rock band, every Friday afternoon.  Their program was inspired by School of Rock, which offers students ages 7 - 18 the opportunity to play in a band in front of a live audience.  Rick Saunders, the school's music teacher, helped the classroom teacher run the rock band, which included vocals, drums, guitars, keyboard, brass and woodwinds.  Students explored the musical genre of rock and roll while developing music skills in improvisation and chord structure.  These two experiences helped inspire the launching of Glacier Valley's Rock Band!

Both Rod and I were new at this, but I remembered another fundamental from Venezuela: "Don't wait, just start!"  Fortunately for us, Ben Martinez came along (left photo).  He was a new transplant to Juneau and had begun an after-school rock band program for elementary students in Maryland, called Treehouse School of Music.  With funding from a Rasmuson Cultural Collaborations grant administered by the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Ben was able to join our team to share the work he did back in Maryland, as well as inspire our young musicians.  Morning band and guitar members who mastered certain skills in their respective ensembles were invited to join this Friday morning jam session.  Needless to say, the importance of practice took on a whole new meaning as students lined-up to "pass off" on their music.

Instead of playing in the friendly key of C, the Rock Band wind section had to challenge themselves to play in the key of E and B to accommodate the guitars.  Clarinets and trumpets had to master notes not introduced in the beginning band book until much later, but because these notes were repeated over and over again throughout the rock songs in an exciting way, success came quickly and easily.

The wind section of our rock band takes on more challenging keys with enthusiasm!

Another unexpected benefit was the inclusion of a Morning Musician alum (8th grader, Quinn) whose brother currently plays trumpet at Glacier Valley.  Thanks to the dedication of his dad who drives Quinn to school after Rock Band practice, Quinn is able to join us on drums, as well as help teach one of our fifith graders how to play the drum set.  Next step:  student rock band vocalists!

Quinn and his dad help connect our elementary program with the middle school
Quinn's participation helps bridge elementary with middle school and foster peer mentoring, two more fundamentals of El Sistema.  Quinn's dad, Russell, also secured a donation of a drum set for our band, another example of why one shouldn't wait ... things will eventually fall into place.  Thank you, Russell, and all Glacier Valley parents who support their child's musical development by getting them here at 7 a.m.  Some of our students now come to school at 7 a.m. four times a week - playing in band, guitar club and Rock Band.  We have a total of 47 students (almost half of the entire 4th & 5th grade student body) choosing to come to school early for these musical opportunities.  Clearly, music motivates and engages kids, giving school life! 

Here's a short clip of the rock band in rehearsal.  For my Facebook friends, you can access the movie on Juneau Music Matters blog:

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