“Mister Naughton, I just thought you should know that my daughter refused to go to bed last night until I agreed to play her some James Brown.”
When a blonde-haired, blue-eyed second-grader in a small midwestern town demands to listen to the Godfather of Soul before bedtime, you can be sure of two things: One, there is hope for the future of Mankind, and two, that young lady must have a pretty cool music teacher.
When Brandy Clark, (principal of SoBoCo Primary School and one of my dearest friends), called me last August to see if I would be interested in taking a long-term substitute teaching assignment as the school’s music teacher, I accepted without hesitation. It was a second chance at fulfilling a lifelong dream.
I had seriously considered majoring in music education thirty years ago, back when I played trombone and baritone horn in my high school’s instrumental music program. Inexplicably, I turned down large scholarship offers in music from a pair of small liberal arts colleges and instead chose to attend the University of Missouri, where I pursued a dual-major in Poor Decision Making and Brain Cell Culling.
Second chances are not to be taken lightly. If it weren’t for second chances, I would not be married to my wife Bethany, I would not have a degree from Ol’ Mizzou, I would not be writing this piece for the Journal, and I would not be teaching music.
During our fateful phone call, I told Brandy that I already had an idea for November’s second grade concert. I wanted to do an original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood-inspired performance, rather than a pre-packaged production common to primary and elementary schools everywhere. Brandy probably thought I was crazy, and she probably still does, but she hid it well. She said that my idea sounded like fun, but I needed to get permission from the copyright holder first.
I asked, and Fred Rogers Productions granted me permission to allow my second graders to perform a selection of songs from Rogers’ television show. To my delight, the kids were very receptive to the positive messages contained in Rogers’ music. They did a great job at the concert, and I’m sure Mister Rogers himself would have been just as proud of them as I was.
Our production of “It’s a Beautiful Day at the Primary School” is one of the highlights of my life.
I can’t thank Brandy Clark enough for giving me this opportunity and for allowing me to be myself in my approach to teaching. Introducing children ages 5 through 8 to the music of James Brown is unorthodox, to say the least, but I did so knowing that I have my principal’s full support. That has enabled me to give 480 children a truly unique, and hopefully unforgettable, educational experience this year.
Oh, I’ve managed to teach them what the state of Missouri expects them to know, too. They’ve learned about musical elements such as pitch, rhythm, tempo, dynamics, notation, composition, vocal and instrumental performance, and so on. They’ve also played various musical instruments and have had an opportunity to see and hear me demonstrate the trumpet, trombone, drums, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, diddley bow, cigar box guitar, wash tub bass, and my homemade electric garden trellis harp.
Once more, in case you missed that last one: a homemade harp made from a repurposed metal garden trellis, equipped with an electric guitar pickup connected to an effects pedal and plugged into an amplifier. It is exactly as bizarre and awesome as you might imagine it to be.
My ultimate goal for this school year was to instill a love of music in my students that would last them a lifetime. My plan for accomplishing this goal was to lead them on a musical journey beginning with the tribal drums of Africa and ending with today’s pop music. Together, we have learned about classical, baroque, spiritual, jugband, bluegrass, country, blues, jazz, soul, funk, and rock music. So far.
We’ve watched videos and listened to selections by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Robert Johnson, Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Buddy Rich, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Parliament Funkadelic, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Neal Peart—just to name a few.
Yes, Parliament Funkadelic is on that list. Trust me, kindergarteners LOVE George Clinton.
I didn’t think it was possible to have this much fun without breaking a law or two. While I was helping our amazing school librarian Kim Taggart with the Scholastic Book Fair last week, a parent stopped by to say hello. “I just wanted to thank you for teaching my kid about Johnny Cash,” the man said.
“It was my pleasure,” I said.
This year has been a pleasure. But it has been so much more than that. It has been the single greatest professional experience of my life and one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. And I’m not finished yet.
This Thursday evening, my first graders will be performing the musical “How To Be a Pirate.” Six and seven-year olds singing about “booty” and “poop-decks”—what could possibly go wrong?