Back to school: Bluesology at the Arts Based School

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The arts are in our DNA in North Carolina, with a long list of painters, performers, writers and musicians from the Old North State going back centuries. Here in the Triad, we’ve woven the arts into our economic development plans, our city budgets and, in the case of Winston-Salem, our city’s identity.

We start them young here, with arts-based curricula beginning in elementary school and becoming more sophisticated as the students develop. They range from public magnet schools and charters to highly selective programs on college campuses.

Arts education integrates elements of history, language, movement, culture, math and science. It instills discipline — for without discipline there would be no art — and feeds self-esteem. It involves creativity, innovation, problem-solving — all traits that can be in short supply around here.

But art’s main purpose is to bring more beauty and thought into the world. In that way the Triad is way ahead of the game.

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Peter Wilbur works with the kindergarten teachers on a song.

Today the kids troop into the Arts Based School — from timid kindergarteners clinging to parents’ hands to self-absorbed eighth graders — for the first day of the new school year.

Like a play on opening night or new paintings freshly hung on a gallery wall, this is hardly the beginning; rather, it’s a culmination of several days of hard work and preparation by teachers and administrators at the public charter school on the north side of downtown Winston-Salem.

Nine grades of 12-bar blues

Flip the calendar back nine days. At 8 o’clock on Monday morning the teachers and administrators gather in an assembly room in the middle-school annex. Like the school’s main facility, it’s a repurposed tobacco warehouse. Clutching coffee cups and pastries, the teachers listen to a trio of professional musicians performing the 12-bar blues.

“I got my mojo workin,’ I’m gonna try it out on you,” Diana Tuffin Eldridge sings, demonstrating with a staple from the classic blues progression.

Even at this early hour the teachers get into it, responding with cries of “Woo!” “All right!” and “Yay!”

The singer asks her audience if they want to hear some improvisation, and indeed they do. With bassist Matt Kendrick and pianist John Mochnik riffing on the progression, Eldridge conjures a piece of lived experience, a tangible and eminently relatable vignette of everyday frustration and perseverance.

“I had to be there this morning,” she sings. “Oh, I dropped my coffee cup. Cracked my fingernail. Cat scratched my stocking. But I’m here on the scene.”

With the trio deconstructing the classic American art form of the blues, the teachers are starting to accumulate some tools in their instructional repertoire.

“You can do some call-and-response,” Kendrick suggests. “You could sing, ‘I went to the store,’ and the kids will come in with, ‘And bought some bread.’ Or, ‘I went to the store’ — ‘And bought some peanut butter.’ Kids get into that. They understand that. That’s my advice.”

It’s pretty clear what’s coming next, and despite varying levels of music ability, the teachers to a one are game to plunge into the exercise. They’ll be grouped by grade level to write and perform their own 12-bar blues with subject matter relevant to their children.

“You could have the first grade blues because first graders are such and so,” Mary Siebert, the school’s arts director, explains. “You could have the seventh grade blues, and that’s a whole ’nother thing, you know?”

A professionally trained opera singer, Siebert drafts Principal Robin Hollis and Assistant Principal Paige Raper to help her sing “The Lost Kid Blues,” a composition that proves the idiom can be adapted to any subject.

The third verse prompts howls of laughter.

“The fact that they’re older, don’t make it okay,” they sing. “Because back in that library, they just might go all the way.”

And rounding back to the tonic note at the song’s conclusion, the trio invokes every educator’s ultimate nightmare: “I got the lost kid blues, and I just might make the evening news.”

Armed with handouts delineating the traits common to the age of their respective students, the teachers break into their grade-level groups for about 20 minutes.

In the fourth-grade group, descriptors of their student cohort as being preoccupied with fairness, prone to injury, and alert to adult imperfections get a reception of wry laughter. Together, they pluck out rhyming words that might give the lyrics the proper rhythm and cadence. “Pick” rhymes with “clique,” and “room” with “doom.” The latter word will be deployed to highlight the students’ flair for drama.

One by one, accompanied by K-4 music teacher Peter Wilbur on guitar, they perform their songs for each other. The teachers make up for the clumsy lyrics that can be expected for on-the-spot composition with flamboyant commitment to the material, and as an audience they respond to each other with high-spirited hilarity.

The kindergarten blues focuses on students falling out of their chairs or showing up at school without an extra pair of clothes. The third-grade group focuses on the dreaded state-mandated end-of-grade exams that determine whether students get promoted. They get lots of laughs when they sing, “I got the EOG blues, and at the end of the day my teacher really needs a beer.”

“The Fourth Grade Blues” includes a funny vignette about a teacher losing control of her class just before recess when she makes the mistake of saying, “Grab the balls.” The sixth-grade teachers tackle the subject of puberty, with references to raging hormones and sprouting chin hairs, while the seventh- and eight-grade teachers lampoon self-obsessed students unable to restrain themselves from taking selfies on their cell phones.

It’s a lot of fun, Wilbur reflects after the session, but it has a serious purpose — not the least of which is teaching adults to lower their inhibitions so they can effectively engage children.

“They’re also modeling how we want to teach the kids,” he says. “They’ll take the risk to be silly and goofy. Look at Mary: She got up and sang in front of professional blues players. She had no fear.”