Worlds of Music
March 5, 2013 -
We started out the year with a bang of activity. In February, the Savoy Family Cajun Band spent a weekend in Buffalo. We had a dance, a house concert / dinner, a public workshop, and performances in the senior center and the schools. Not only are the Savoys incredible musicians, but they lit up the town with their energy and excitement. Right after they came to Wyoming, Wilson and Joel won a Grammy! "The Band Courtboullion" with Wayne Toups, Wilson, Savoy and Steve Riley won the Regional Roots Grammy. They released the album through Valcour Records, run by Joel Savoy. Quite the excitement.
W E A R E N E V E R R E A L L Y S U R E what life has in store for us. There is a surprise around every corner, and a lesson to be learned. I had one of those surprises this year through a traditional music performance at Buffalo High School. Each year the local Worlds of Music organization brings traditional groups from all over the world to perform and work with students and community members in Buffalo and surrounding areas. I was able to see the Savoy Family Cajun Band from Eunice, Louisiana. Marc Savoy is a member of one of the first Cajun families that moved, in exile, from Nova Scotia to Louisiana. Though his college degree is in chemical engineering, he has made his living making some of the finest button accordions in the world. Marc’s wife Ann Savoy is a singer and guitarist who wrote the award winning Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. Ann has recorded with Linda Ronstadt and T-Bone Burnett, and has performed as a swing musician in the film The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Marc and Ann’s sons Wilson and Joel have played not only in their family band but in many other groups including the Redstick Ramblers, Cajun Country, the Pine Leaf Boys, and The Band Court Bouillon which received a 2013 Grammy award for best Regional Roots album.
When the Savoys came to Buffalo in late January, I didn’t quite know what to expect. With the regionally renowned Fireants calling Buffalo their home, I had been exposed to some Cajun style music at community dances but the Savoy visit expanded my vision of the music. First, I was surprised to learn that while the Savoys have all performed in a number of movies as well as on soundtracks and anthology albums with a wide array of musicians, they prepare for these jobs without reading music. They value music for its sound structure, and approach theory aurally. Their ears are the most important instruments they have and when they play they are constantly listening to where the music is and where it might go. When the Savoys were performing for and talking with my students at Buffalo High I noticed something that seems to me to show the spectacular skills these musicians have. The Savoys were interested in what our jazz choir was learning so the group sang a Manhattan Transfer standard we were learning that no one in the Savoy family had heard before. After about 16 bars the Savoys were playing along with the students. I want my students to have that skill, too. It’s very important to music teachers that our students be literate, so that they can make music independently, but I see that they can’t be truly independent if they need the printed transcriptions in front of them in order to create music. By only teaching the written tradition, we may be tethering our students to a certain kind of music. Because of the Savoys, I feel that I should be doing more to help my students both read and play by ear. I want to incorporate into my music program activities that will help school music students learn to jam, to get together with their instruments and create something spontaneous based on their experiences in the classrooms.
In conversations during their visit, Joel Savoy described a world in Cajun country in which many young men and women get together and simply make music. Regardless of ability, all musicians are welcome. It is a very important part of their culture, and goes hand in hand with a wonderful tradition of community dances. He painted a picture of a very inclusive musical environment. It made me think back to a discussion I had with a retired band director in Wyoming who I’ve been lucky enough to have as a friend. He said that all music teachers should ask themselves whether they would be considered inclusive or exclusive. Does a teacher offer music making to all students? Or does a teacher suggest that music should be preserved for only the most interested and dedicated students? Does the teacher believe that every young person is capable of having a moving experience in music even if it doesn’t move the instructor, or does the musical growth of the instructor through the student’s performance provide the litmus test for the growth of the group? When the National Association for Music Education’s past president Scott Schuler spoke at our last Wyoming state conference in Evanston, he stated that our model of ensemble performance was antiquated, and should be replaced with more one-year and semester long offerings in music. At the time I found his comments shocking and without merit. After all, I wasn’t inspired to teach music so that I could offer courses like “Creating Your Own Music App” or “Ableton Live 101.” Now I see that more than anything else Schuler was asking us to think more deeply about how we present music to students.
Scott Schuler’s talk and the Savoy Family Cajun Band’s visit have led me to ask a lot of questions: are we teaching music in a way that will allow all people to share music making when they finish school? Have we given the opportunity to make music to every student? As a secondary teacher for the majority of my career, I see that my colleagues in the elementary classroom have done a wonderful job of offering music making to every student. But at the secondary level, when we are asked why more students aren’t enrolling in music classes, we often fall back on the old adage that “kids have to make choices.” It seems to me though that students are influenced to make certain choices. I believe that music making will benefit every student and so I want to do more to create a school music environment in which students can’t imagine their world without making music.
Ben Zander, in his now famous TED Talks keynote (available on YouTube) discusses the future of classical music by highlighting the fact that his contemporaries believe 3% of the general public listens to classical music. They also believe that if they could raise that number to 4% all of their troubles would be ended. Zander then offered the story of two American shoe salesmen sent to Africa in the early 1900’s. The first salesman sent a telegram back to the US reading “SITUATION HOPELESS STOP THEY DON’T WEAR SHOES STOP.” The second salesman wrote “GLORIOUS OPPORTUNITY STOP NO ONE WEARS SHOES YET STOP.” Zander extended this simple idea to classical music by asking, “How would you walk…how would you talk…how you be if you thought everybody loves classical music, they just don’t know it yet!” The application to our school ensembles is obvious. Music is for everyone— they just don’t know it yet. We can help them to make this discovery, to recognize that music is captivating, interesting, and rewarding and all the more so when we go beyond merely listening to music and become active music makers, creators of our own musical worlds. To do this we must create a curriculum in which students feel that they are progressing from whatever skill level they began at.
I don’t know exactly what I’ve learned from influences such as Ben Zander’s and Scott Schuler’s talks, or from the Savoy family’s visit to my classroom, but I know one thing: the longer I teach music, the more questions I have about that teaching. There was a wise man that walked the halls of our state music educators’ conference for many years and who said, “the forest would be a very quiet place if only the most talented birds sang.” Maybe this is the biggest part of what I’ve learned.
--Chad Rose, Buffalo High School music teacher
After the Savoy Family visit to Buffalo in late January we received this note from Buffalo High School music teacher Chad Rose. It reflects a lot of what we're trying to do with Worlds of Music programs: