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A Lifetime of Music Instrumental education in valley reaches crescendo.
By Richard Anderson, Jackson Hole, Wyo. January 18, 2012
Why do we teach music?
Not because we expect you to major in music.
Not we because we expect you to play all your life.
Not so you can relax.
Not so you can have fun.
But: so you will be human
so you will recognize beauty
so you will be sensitive
so you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world
so you will have something to cling to
so you will have more love, more compassion,
more gentleness, more good — in short, more life
In the course of their careers, most music teachers encounter the above quote. Most can cite or at least allude to the countless studies that demonstrate the many benefits of learning and practicing music — benefits to cognitive abilities, social skills, coordination, memory, etc. — and can speak eloquently about what music has done for them in their lives.
And yet, when times get tough and budgets get crunched, music education still all too often is the first program to suffer.
During the past 10 or 15 years in Teton County schools, however, music has thrived, growing from a fringe activity that more than once faced the threat of cuts to a robust curriculum that involves scores of students at every grade level. Several nonprofits enrich the school curriculum with additional instruction, exposure to a wide range of music and performance opportunities. While in years past, the district has sent only one or two students — or none at all — to all-state band, orchestra and choir, this year, it sent seven, in addition an eight-piece cello ensemble.
Pete Closson is the band director at Jackson Hole High School. His wife, Robin, teaches band at the middle school. Both perform with the Jackson Hole Community Band.
“The important thing is all students need as many opportunities as possible to be exposed to as many things as possible,” he said, “just to develop as a complete and whole child. Music often is mentioned because it benefits other things, but it’s valuable in itself.”
Vince Gutwein, who teaches orchestra in the high and middle schools, said, “We think of the top goal as being a professional musician,” but learning music “is just good for society as a whole.”
“It’s its own form of enrichment and enjoyment,” said Jens Gade, the middle and high school choir teacher. “And you can do it at any level you want.”
These days in Jackson, there are more resources than ever — private teachers, school programs, nonprofit support — available to introduce kids to music, help them find an instrument, and give them the encouragement they need to stick to it.
All students in Teton County School District are required to take music in kindergarten to fifth grade. In middle school, they are required to participate in band, choir or orchestra for sixth and seventh grade. In eighth grade, music becomes an elective.
In the nonprofit world, the Grand Teton Music Festival is most directly and extensively involved in the schools’ music programs. It funds and administers the Tune Up program, which was created by pianist Pam Phillips about a decade ago and which sends professional musicians — accomplished masters of their instruments — into the middle and high schools weekly to work with sections of the band and orchestra. Drummer Ed Domer, for example, goes in to work with percussion students, saxophonist Jason Fritts works with the band’s sax sections, and trombonist Art Fuerte works with the low brass.
The festival also runs StringFest, in which middle school string players spend a full day rehearsing at Walk Festival Hall with Star Valley Middle School players, followed by a short public concert in the evening. The festival makes its Teton Village concert hall available to the middle and high school ensembles for their spring concerts, Kristen Morrison, the festival’s education program manager said, and it offers a scholarship to a graduating high school senior.
In the winter, it presents Music in the Schools: Chamber groups brought in for the festival’s winter concert series perform for elementary school students. In the first program of 2012, which took place last week, all third-graders in the district got to hear a string quartet. First- and fifth-graders will be targeted in the February and March installments. Another part of the winter series is a Saturday afternoon family concert, free to everyone, which in March will also feature an “instrument petting zoo,” a collaboration with the community band. This year, the festival also launched a new Opera in the Schools program to introduce students to that musical form and to lure some to the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” series, which the festival screens.
“We’re really trying to step it up and provide what we can,” Morrison said.
But other community organizations play roles, too. The community band, big band, orchestra, chorale and chamber choir give chances for teens to work and play beside older musicians, including professionals and former professionals, and offer many performance opportunities throughout each year. And the Jackson Hole Music Experience has for about a decade offered its summer Rock Camp for teens, which focuses on playing in ensembles, as well as other occasional chances to play for live audiences.
And of course, there are dozens of private instructors, five of whom are profiled.
Closson, Gade and Gutwein all agree: The sooner a student starts learning music, the better. Gutwein said kids as young as 3 can start to learn violin. Piano is also an excellent first instrument that can lay a solid foundation for wherever else a young musician chooses to go. For most band instruments, Closson said, it’s better to wait until fifth or sixth grade.
Gutwein encouraged parents interested in getting their children involved in music — from finding an instrument to selecting a teacher — to call him, Closson or Gade, or to talk to the music teacher in their children’s school. The music festival and music experience also have tons of resources, he said. “It’s not easy to achieve what musicians can achieve, “ Closson said.
“If it were easy, anyone could do it. There are going to be times when it gets rough … but [parents] don’t want to let [children] off the hook. They need to help them through, encourage them to stick with it.”
Gutwein said, “You meet lot of people who say, ‘I wish I still played the piano or the violin or I performed in a community group. You don’t run into lot of people who say, ‘I’m really glad I quit.’”
Art Fuerte, trombone
To students at the Kelly and Moran elementary schools, he’s “Mr. Art,” the music teacher each child learns from one class a week. But just a couple of years ago, Art Fuerte was one of the busiest working bass trombonists in Southern California.
“I was gigging every day,” he said. “There wasn’t one day I had off.”
In 2009, he logged 40,000 miles driving to performances and teaching jobs.
“It was great,” he said. “I love playing music so much, I do what it takes.”
Fuerte got his undergraduate degree at California State University, Fullerton, where he majored in jazz. A teacher advised him to widen his repertoire and learn to play in an orchestra, so he applied for and won one of two bass trombone spots at the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music, where he immersed himself in orchestral playing, earned his master’s and wove together a new network of musical associates and contacts.
After a few years back East — including touring with the revival of the show “Music Man” — he returned to California. Able to play jazz, concert band or orchestral music, he quickly became in demand.
“I’m lucky enough to have it all,” he said. “It made me more valuable as a performer.”
He moved to Jackson in 2010 when his wife, Shelley Fuerte, landed a plum job with the Grand Teton Music Festival. While there aren’t as many opportunities in the valley for a bass trombonist to perform, Fuerte has filled his schedule with students. Beside teaching at Kelly and Moran, he spends about seven hours a week with middle and high school brass players. He also teaches privately and is the director of the Jackson Hole Community Band.
“I lump that into education, too,” he said.
In fact, students can get college credit for performing with the group, and participating teachers earn certification credits.
Picking the right instrument for a child is about finding out what the student has a knack for.
“They might be good with their hands, or they might be good with rhythm,” Fuerte said.
Then it’s about exposing them to repertoire — “Any type of music,” he said, “rock, jazz, orchestra, ska, reggae, salsa … any kind of music is good exposure. You never know what the student is going to like.” — and developing technique.
“We try to figure out what they’re really good at and develop that,” Fuerte said. “Then we point out deficiencies and fix them, help them become well-rounded players … to get as much experience, as much literature under their belt as we can. The whole point is to enjoy music.”
Laura Huckin, piano and voice
Laura Huckin gave her first piano lessons when she was in high school.
“There was a neighbor who had some young kids who wanted to play,” she said.
Already a serious and accomplished student, the teenage Huckin agreed to get them started.
“So I had two students when I was still a young’un,” she said.
Huckin grew up in a musical family, though she was the only one to take it seriously. She started piano at age 7 and took to it right away. Her family moved a lot when she was young, but she said she was fortunate to have found excellent teachers along the way, including in the public schools she attended.
While still in middle school, she got involved with the Lawrence Academy of Music, a program of Lawrence University in Wisconsin, which immersed her in an intensive study of theory and private instruction.
“It was a really great moment for me musically.”
She majored in film in college but still made music, too, taking lessons and singing in choirs. She moved to Jackson in 2002 to work for the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and started teaching piano and voice on the side around 2003. In 2005, she made the leap to teaching full time. Today, she maintains a roster of 25 to 30 students — mostly piano, some voice — and also plays for theatrical productions. Last fall, for example, she was music director for Off Square Theatre Company’s children’s musical, “Annie.”
The hardest part of learning music, Huckin said, is getting beyond the analytical process of translating marks on a page to actual musical sounds that have feeling and meaning.
“It’s a language in and of itself, it really is,” she said. “When you’re young, it’s hard to grasp the end result and where it’s headed.”
Huckin’s goal is to give students a firm foundation in that language.
Flexibility is essential for a teacher. Each student has different strengths and weaknesses, learning challenges and natural abilities.
“You need to adjust to that,” she said. “I don’t subscribe to any particular methods. I don’t believe there’s one that works for everyone.”
Also, Huckin said, it’s OK if kids don’t stick to their first instrument.
“Some will bounce around until they find something that grabs them,” she said. “So don’t be disheartened if they don’t like the flute right away.”
Key to success is the involvement of parents, whose job it is to keep students engaged and encouraged.
“They have to be cheerleaders, or [kids] won’t play, and they won’t practice,” Huckin said.
Jason Fritts, saxophone
Jason Fritts grew up in rural Texas and started playing sax when he was in the sixth grade. He and his fellow band students benefited from an influential and devoted teacher who led the “bunch of farm kids” to victory at state competitions.
It was in high school Fritts decided to make music and teaching his life. He attended the University of Texas, Arlington, finished his bachelor’s at the New England Conservatory of Music and got a master’s in performance at Northwestern University. While still in college, he began to spend his summers in Jackson. He moved here permanently in 1995 and got involved with the Jazz Foundation of Jackson Hole’s big band.
The music scene was pretty lean back then, he recalled, both in terms of clubs that would pay musicians to play and the music program in the school system.
“There was a real thirst for the arts in town but no place to do it,” he said.
He credits the opening of the Center for the Arts in 2002 for planting a lot of seeds and getting a lot of programs rolling.
Today, Fritts performs several times a week with Dixieland unit Jackson 6, Latin combo Calle Mambo and his jazz-oriented Jason Fritts Ensemble,. He also directs the Jazz Foundation’s big band, which he considers a form of continuing education for participants.
The other half of his musical life is teaching. He works with middle and high school sax students in the schools and maintains a private sax studio.
Fritts said fourth or fifth grade is a good time to start learning a band instrument. Violins come in many sizes — young students can start on an instrument as small as 1/16 the size of an adult’s instrument — but saxophones do not.
“So, you have to wait until they’re big enough,” he said.
Fritts works to establish a relationship with the student, finding out what motivates them, and tailoring lessons around the individual.
“What motivates one student isn’t going to motivate everyone,” he said.
What he does insist on is practice.
“It comes down to educational discipline,” he said. “These kids maybe haven’t learned that yet. They haven’t learned that if they work hard on something, they’ll master the skill. Once they do that a couple times, it starts a snowball effect. … I hope they at least learn that educational discipline. They will need that to be successful later in life.”
Ed Domer, drums
Ed Domer started playing drums when he was 2.
“I had sticks to play with, and I played with them constantly. When I was a little boy and was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I blurted out ‘a drummer.’”
Domer’s father was a conductor, oboist and head of the music department at Vancouver (British Columbia) Community College. His mother was a music teacher and cellist. They also taught at a music camp when he was little. One year, the percussion group Nexus came to the camp, bringing with it “a gymnasium of exotic percussion instruments.”
“I, as a 5-year-old boy, was allowed to run loose on that for six weeks,” Domer said. “That was pretty much the time I knew without a doubt that it was going to be drums.”
Enthusiasm didn’t mean his parents didn’t have to apply discipline. They made him take five years of piano lessons. He had to practice before he got dinner. After his piano prerequisite, he started to learn classical percussion.
When Domer got out of high school, he moved to Los Angeles and attended the Dick Groves School of Music, run by a famous jazz educator. Other LA instructors included Luis Conte, David Garibaldi and Peter Erskine — huge names in the drumming and music education worlds.
He then went to the University of California, Northridge, but pulled out to tour with The Lettermen, a legendary vocal harmony group. After that, he returned to LA, where he found plenty of work, before moving to Jackson in 1996.
“I have friends in famous bands,” he said. “They play the same music every day, and they live in airports. I live in Jackson Hole, and I play every kind of music there is.”
Domer is a member of “hair metal band” 86, the Snake River Band and Derrik and the Dynamos. He’s the regular drummer for the Stagecoach Band, performs weekly with pianist Pam Phillips at The Granary and plays Sundays with pianist Keith Phillips at the Presbyterian church.
He also has about 15 private students — he teaches out of a practice room in the Center for the Arts — and has been involved with the Grand Teton Music Festival’s Tune Up program for ages.
“I teach traditional, tried-and-true stuff,” he said. “I’m teaching techniques that have been around since the late 1800s, early 1900s.”
Learning music is good for us, Domer said. It helps with memory, learning disabilities, behavioral issues. It’s a way to socialize that, because it is not language-dependent, can allow different cultures to interact.
“It’s hard to pin down anything that music is not good for,” he said.
Like healthy eating, learning music is something a person can start benefiting from at any age, but it’s best to start early. Domer usually won’t take students younger than sixth grade, though he will take them as young as fifth and fourth grade “if parents make the commitment.”
If someone decides he or she wants to make a career of music, that, Domer said, is a whole other level of dedication.
“That’s a big decision,” he said. “It requires a lifelong commitment. … The education required is vast. You need to understand music from all cultures, Latin rhythms, music notation.”
It takes about 10,000 hours to become competent on an instrument, and then the work has just begun.
“I started drumming when I was 2, and I am now — just now — getting to where I can adequately play brushes on a jazz gig,” Domer said. “I’m still 10 years away from where they want to be as a decent player.”
Zaidee Fuller, cello
Jackson native Zaidee Fuller got interested in music at a young age, taking piano lessons and playing in junior high and high school bands. She got her first cello in the early 1960s, right when the Grand Teton Music Festival began, and took lessons from the orchestra’s principal cellist.
Back then, the schools didn’t have an orchestra program, so Fuller didn’t have anyone to play cello with her. Figuring a string program wouldn’t get going unless someone took the lead, she went back to school, got a degree in music education and, in the mid-’90s, persuaded the school district to give a string program a try.
“The first year, I think I had maybe 35 students in the fifth grade and 10 or 15 in the middle school,” she said.
Every year, the group grew, with younger musicians moving along to high school and the program expanding to higher grades.
“I think it’s pretty firmly embraced by the schools now,” she said.
Fuller also helped create StringFest with the Grand Teton Music Festival, in which middle school students in Jackson and Star Valley rehearse and perform with a professional orchestra player (in recent years, that has been Barbara Scowcroft, of the Utah Symphony and Utah Youth Orchestra) in Walk Festival Hall.
Fuller said children can start learning to play a stringed instrument at quite an early age. She tends to start out by focusing on technique and mechanics.
“Technique is much harder than teaching them to read,” she said. “When they can play something, they can learn to read it, but if they can read it, they can’t play it if they don’t have a proper foundation physically. Initially, I want them to hold the bow well and to understand rhythm and pitch and how to make a good sound. … Reading is down the road.”
Most important for success, though, it parental involvement. “They have to listen to their children play and practice and take a real participatory role,” Fuller said. “It’s not, ‘Go to your room and practice.’ That’s when it fails.”