When you think about an elementary school music class, a choir might come to mind. The students sing choral standards with their teacher standing in front, or backing them up on piano.
But these days, some of those classes are different. In Juneau, one music teacher has hundreds of kids playing guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and banjos – together, as a band.
In the music room at Gastineau School in Douglas, Patrick Murphy leads a group of energetic third-graders through a folk standard, pointing out chord changes and strumming styles.
Murphy weaves his way around the classroom, checking that instruments are tuned and the right lyric sheet is out. The kids quickly become focused.
“This is silly, but the most difficult thing as a teacher is to get them to sit down,” Murphy said. “If I can get them seated with their gear, then in 30 seconds, we’re making music.”
These kids pick up instruments pretty soon after the school year starts. That’s because Murphy wants them to get a feel for the songs before they get to the technical side.
“I do that later,” Murphy said. “I kind of have this belief that if they can make music first – sing and play – then that reference will help them when they start reading stuff on the staff. … Which we do.”
Students focus on guitar the first year. But the classroom walls are hung with other stringed instruments. By the end of third grade, some are ready for a change.
“In fourth or fifth grade, I kind of just let them grab an instrument. And they turn to the chord chart and they teach it to themselves,” Murphy said. “And then I teach them their role in a string band. The banjoes have the thumb picking and the mandolins and ukuleles kind of chop with the snare drum and that sort of thing.”
All this is very different from Murphy’s own schooling, which was mostly classical.
“I was a trained bass player,” Murphy said. “I went through the conservatory system. And it just about taught the music out of me. And I met a bunch of guys who were cowboys. They liked to sit around campfires and play guitar. And I asked one of my friends to teach me. And he said, ‘I’ll teach you how to play guitar. Two rules: You can’t write anything down and you can’t ask me any questions.’”
Those rules forced him figure things out. Pretty soon, he was teaching himself.
Murphy grew up going to a church that had lots of acoustic music. That included songs in the folk tradition, some from decades ago. Murphy has the seemingly daunting task of teaching classic songs like “Shady Grove” to third and fourth-graders.
“Kids like history,” Murphy said. “They like to hear stories that are bizarre. The story of John Henry, the third-graders love that. Why would he bother to compete with a machine? The absurdness of the human spirit sometimes to a young kid is really entertaining.”
Still, some come to him with more recent songs. It’s not so much Bruno Mars or Lady Gaga, but pop classics, such as “Yellow Submarine” or “Lean on Me”.
Some end up in the class songbook, which changes every year.
Murphy used to teach middle-school band. Gastineau and other schools where he’s taught have had many years of stand-up student choirs. And he’s not critical.
“That kind of approach is great,” Murphy said. “That high-art music takes a certain discipline to play and work on that. But I guess, from my perspective, I want them to have fun and I want them to do it on their own.”
And they do. Murphy starts some days with a full musical assembly in the school commons, where everybody gets a chance to play and sing.
It’s a cacophony and it’s not always pretty. But a lot of the kids have smiles on their faces.