Don is an approved teaching artist in the Colorado Council on the Arts Art in Education (Artist in Residence) and Aesthetic Institute (classroom teacher training) programs. This year (2000) he is doing one residency, in the Northern Conejos County School District at La Jara Elementary School and Manassa Elementary School. Here he shares his thoughts on the importance of this program, his goals with the students in his workshops, and the specific details of this residency. There will also be posted some downloadable MP3 files of the students musical creations. Check it out!
Why this is important -
The arts to me deal with possible answers to the question of "Why be alive?" So much of society and education is rushing around trying to find better ways to teach "how", how to learn enough science and math to compete in the global economy, how to raise the test scores to get better jobs to make more money so that we will be worthy, etc. But if you don't have a "why", all the "hows" in the world will do you no good. There are many young people who do not buy the messages of society that worth equals money and outward achievement and messages appealing to these values will not reach them. They get the message fed to them that "This is what life is about, so get on board - take it or leave it" and they feel a gut-level reaction of "No thanks - not interested." But kids also tend to agree with or give credence to what their parents and society tell them and they usually do not have enough self confidence and direction to make their way independently. So they choose negation and non-involvement with life. This can mean suicide, drugs, crime - all that good stuff. So how could we present a different picture to this population that might engage them?
The arts deal with reasons why life is worth living. And for those who are so inclined artistic activity and creation is often reason enough. For those who are so inclined, other directions may not suffice, or they may not suffice if art is not added into the mix in a real and substantial way. I want to teach the participants in my workshops that they can create, that they and thus their creations and ideas have value, and to experience the flow and joy of creation. I know that very few will choose to become musicians, and that is as it should be. But creation is creation. If they know they can do it, they can create businesses, educations, good lives, families and societies. I also want them to know their creations will be criticized and ridiculed by others, and that's part of the deal, so get used to it.
I have seen a high school songwriting workshop participant go from sitting in the corner by the door, refusing to take part in this nonsense, to actively leading the class in songwriting in the course of a 45 minute period. Don't tell me there's no power here. I don't know what the long term effects on that young man might have been from that experience, but I know that if he had experiences of being engaged in this type of creation and expression on a regular basis it would change his life. I think kids need to be exposed to someone that can honestly tell them that life doesn't have to be a drag. It can be wonderfully fun, challenging, engaging, and never boring. And they need to hear it from someone who they can tell actually feels that way, and isn't just feeding them a line. They can tell.
Music, and the explorations involved in creating it, can serve as a tool to open up the flow in both these young folks and those like me who are a little further down the road. Music does not have to be or remain the primary form of expression for them, or for me or you. After opening up the flow and opening up your eyes enough to really look at what's coming through, they or you may realize, "You know, I'm not really very good at this - I think I'll find another form of expression that suits me better," and that is as it should be.
Dealing with the creation of art and the endless ambiguity of the choices involved teaches students to be able to handle that ambiguity. Life is not neatly laid out in some linear progression, as much of their lessons in school are. They need to know that a work of art or anything else worthwhile does not spring forth full formed and perfect, and they aren't failures if this doesn't happen. Life is a process of getting started, putting something down, taking a shot, and then refining that, going back, starting over, erasing, rewriting, re-recording, maybe heading off in a new direction entirely. They need to see that even someone who is very good and "successful" works that way, and there is no shame in it.
I think a life well lived is lived artfully, regardless if that person ever has anything to do with what the world thinks of as art. I have never seen anything do a better job of teaching these things than the Art in Education program.
A Brief Overview of Don's Year 2000 Workshops
My goal in these workshops is to help the students feel music as I feel it - as a flow or expression, from the inside flowing out into the world, rather than something outside themselves on a CD or a piece of written music. I want them to feel the fun and the joy that I feel doing this, as well as experience the challenge and the discipline involved and the concentration necessary to do it well.
I start out by asking the students why they feel that human beings ever felt the need to come up with such a thing as music. We discuss music's function as an expression of emotion and its place in early man's celebrations and rituals, as well as its communicative aspects in the passing on of oral histories in early cultures. I then point out to them that this expression came first, then came all the rules, structure, and notation that they might learn about in school music classes. All the rules and structure came into being to serve the expression and communication - that expression is primary. We then do a little expression vocally and with a foot-hand rhythm, just to feel what it's like, envisioning first a sad occasion in our "tribe" and then a happy one. I spend a few minutes talking about how it feels somewhat awkward to do these sorts of things, and how any time we create anything or do anything we face possible criticism and ridicule from others. I ask the students to pleas help make this a "safe space" where we can have fun and create. We then do some communicative conversation exercises on a keyboard with two students "talking" to each other, expressing various emotions or states to each other.
Next we move on to the creation and recording of sounds in the classroom, using first ordinary objects in the classroom (non-instruments) and later working our way to using some of the instruments that I have brought in.
I bring in a fairly full-featured computer based recording studio into the classroom with microphones, mixer, processors and all the software necessary to make professional sounding recordings of anything we choose to do. I think of it as sort of a "high-tech/low-tech" approach. We use some very low-tech objects to create sound - banging on desks, bouncing balls, zippers, velcro, water fountains, chalk on chalkboard, pencil shaprpeners, basically anything we can find - and then record it and manipulate it using some very sophisticated software on the computer. The main software packages I am using are both from the company Sonic Foundry. One is a program designed for the creation of modern rap and hip-hop muscial backgrounds using short pieces of audio called "loops", called ACID. The other program is a general 2-track sound editor I use to actually record the loops, called Sound Forge. Once the loops are recorded the ACID program alows us to very easily arrange and rearrange them in any way we choose using an easily grasped graphic interface.
The reason I like to start out using non-instruments is because the students are not intimidated by them. The first thing a student will think when I hand them an instrument is "I can't play this." They don't think that about banging on a box or tapping on the chalkboard. Yet they find that even these "instruments" need to be played with focus and concentration to get the desired results. Then when we get to making some sounds on "real" instruments I encourage them to adopt the same attitude of play and experimentation combined with focused concentration and repetition to get the part right.
We use some very general terms to categorize our sounds - rhythm, texture, melody, and decoration. As possible sound sources or instruments are suggested, we talk about what category of sound this might be used for. If we are working with standard instruments, the student is asked to come up and experiment with making some sounds with it. I then suggest a possible part (if necessary) and then we set out to learn to play, then record the part. The advantage of using loops is the student generally only has to correctly play the figure once, and the extraneous notes are edited away in the computer.
In another session lyrics are written. In this residency we are using curriculum based topics that the students' classroom teachers are suggesting. We discuss song structural concepts like verse, chorus, and bridge. We then record the lyrics, in either a sung or rapped style, or both. We can then play more with the recorded loop backgrounds to better complement the vocal part. At the end of the residency I will give the music teacher (Mrs. Ann Huffaker - a wonderful, wonderful teacher and a complete joy to work with) a master CD of the recordings, and she will make tapes for any student who wants them.