Playing by Ear

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These days, the Savannah Music Festival isn’t just filling seats every March—it’s filling desks year-round.  All photography courtesy of the Savannah Music Festival.

At 9 a.m. on a hump day, Shanna Lesniak leads a roomful of Chatham, Effingham and Beaufort county elementary school teachers in an interactive chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain.”  They’re out of their chairs, shaking their groove things and coordinating hand gestures as they lift their voices loud and proud.  While they hold the final note, Lesniak gives the room a round of applause and laughs from deep in her belly.

“We’re all friends now, right?” she says, sweeping her hands above her head, “Because that just happened.”

Do-Re “Me”

Lesniak, a teaching artist with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, is in town to kick off the second semester of the Savannah Music Festival’s Musical Explorers program—the first K-2 integrated arts model the institute has initiated outside of New York.  The multimedia curriculum weaves music education into the regular classroom units on language arts, history, social studies and geography using the stories and traditions of local musicians.

Jenny Woodruff, the education director for the Savannah Music Festival, has customized the program to the low country, incorporating bluegrass, jazz and ring shouts into the program’s first semester; and opera, blues and African-American gospel into the second.  By second grade, Woodruff explains, the 9,000 students from more than 50 area schools will have learned about 18 different genres of music through 18 local artists, and will have attended six concerts.

“They are learning that the music belongs to them—even if it’s not from their heritage,” reflects Woodruff.  “At that age, it’s important to feel like you belong to something.  And in my mind, the earlier we can talk with kids about what it means to be in a community, the better.


A Joyful Noise

Case in point: Woodruff describes an encounter with a student from Coastal Empire Montessori School.

“I walked into the audience, and this little girl asked me if Jimmy [Wolling] was here.  ‘I want to sing my song,’ she said.  And she started singing the bluegrass tune ‘In the Pines.’  She knew every single word.”

With bluegrass, students learn how to identify and express mood.  With the McIntosh County Shouters, they explore the coastal Gullah-Geechee heritage.  Jazz aficionado Kim Michael Polote illuminates pattern in speech and imagery.  Soprano Rebecca Flaherty demonstrates how emotion and gesture take center stage in opera.  Gospel singer Huxsie Scott emphasizes tempo.

Guitarist Eric Culberson uses the blues to showcase emotions by emphasizing different words in different lines of a song.  As he plucks away at a rousing version of “A Little Red Rooster” for the teacher training, he explains that the blues don’t necessarily convey sadness.

“By the time you’re singing about it, you’re over it,” he rasps.  “Blues is a shelter to go to.”

It’s also a “window to the world,” says Hodge Elementary first-grade teacher Bynikini M. Frazier.  “[Musical Explorers] has transformed my classroom.  My students are now experts who are aware of cultural connections that make the classroom come alive.”

I never thought I’d say this again, but I want to go back to school.