Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Place Called Home

Yesterday was Community Service Day at work, so I went to this place in South Central LA called "A Place Called Home" to volunteer. The description on the sign-up sheet just said "Music" and I figured, I've got over 20 years of experience as a musician, plus even more as an obsessive music fan, that sounds like fun.

It really was. It was completely disorganized, the woman leading the class had no idea what we should do with the kids, we had no idea how to prepare, so we ended up doing a trivia game with them. Imagine 30+ 8 year olds yelling "Michael Jackson! 50 Cent! Tito Puente!" out for every single answer, and that'll give you an idea of my afternoon. Still, they were pretty great kids and I had a blast.

It was amazing to see what they knew, and what they didn't know. Like, there's a picture of Jimi Hendrix in their classroom, so when I pointed to it and asked, "Who is this?" imagine my surprise when they answered, with great authority, "Bob Marley!" Huh? I mean, I can totally understand not being familiar with Jimi, but they did know Bob... interesting. So of course, I took the opportunity to give them a brief lesson in rock history. Ever tried to explain the difference between Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley to large group of inner city children before? It's kind of fun. I mean, they really want to know this stuff (or at least they acted interested for my benefit).

It was fascinating to discover that they knew the musical alphabet (A - G), but they didn't know what a scale was (Do Re Mi, etc). Or they'd know who Charlie Parker was, but not James Brown. Again, I don't expect them to know James Brown, but Charlie? I also found it highly amusing that when we asked them, "Who sings, 'I feel good! (Na ne na ne na ne na) I knew that I would now,'" we had more than one perplexed face in the room when we told them "Eddie Murphy" was the wrong answer.

The funniest/most alarming, yet technically correct answer of the day (from an 8 year old):
Q. Name one band or singer that would fall into the category of Rock Music.
A. Marilyn Manson

At the end of our class, I was brimming with ideas for another session. The trivia game might have been a little crazy, especially since we were pulling questions out of thin air on the spot and they were either too hard or too easy. But it turned out to be a great way to find out what they know, and what they don't know. I've already started compiling song ideas for one or two mix CDs to send over to the class that would include all types of music, from Mozart to Aretha, so they can learn different genres and artists. I want to create more games and activities so they can learn more about different instruments, and basic music theory. I want to teach them song after song after song. In short, I want to go back.

This has been a huge experience for me. The truth is, I've always been passionate about the importance of music in education. Music programs keep kids occupied with something stimulating, instead of out on the streets where they can get into trouble (or worse, unfortunately). They make the world a bigger place for them. They give kids something to try to improve and a sense of achievement when it happens. They have a huge impact on how they learn other subjects in school. For example:

1) History: A volunteer played a waltz on the piano, which they correctly identified as classical music. We went a little further after they answered the question and explained what a waltz is, and how people used to dance to them a long time ago. They asked, "Like in the 70's?" Well, sure. The 1770's. Their eyes widened, and their faces lit up, as if it suddenly occurred to them how old that song must be. Imagine where you could take that. Like, what else happened in the 1770's that they might be interested in?

2) Language: The same volunteer pantomimed playing a harp for them, only to have one of them answer, "Ark! It's an ark!" After working with him for a little bit, we found out that he had the right idea, but he didn't know the word harp. So we spelled it on the white board and had everyone sound it out.

3) Math: In order to measure beats of music or rhythm, you need to understand different lengths of notes. In traditional 4/4 time, there are four beats in one measure of music. A whole note contains four beats--it takes up the whole measure. A half note has 2 beats--it takes up half the measure. A quarter note has 1 beat. An eighth note equals half a beat. Getting kids to understand rhythms takes a basic understanding of counting, adding, dividing and even simple fractions.

Music programs for kids do all this and so much more. What's sad is that in most areas of our country, they have been cut from school curriculums because US public schools don't get enough funding to put towards new books and decent teachers, much less rental instruments that kids can take home and practice. So the opportunities for kids to learn music become extremely limited. Families with enough money can buy instruments, pay for private lessons and get their kids into orchestras and other organizations outside of school. Families without the income or resources are lucky if they can bring their kids to A Place Called Home.

If you're in the LA area and would like to volunteer, please visit their website or give me a buzz--maybe we could go over together. (If you're a musician, even a bad one, even better!) If you have ideas for activities these kids could do, or opinions on what kinds of songs I should put in these CDs I'm mixing, please leave them in the Comments section below, or email me if you have my address. If you're outside of LA or haven't a clue what kinds of things would be good for a music class, but still want to help, visit their website. I'm sure they're always happy to accept donations.


Anonymous said...

Visiting, through the pamie forum.

Great blog. I liked the entry about your wedding and your choice of songs for such an important event.

Congratulations on your marriage and your house.


Susanna said...

What a neat experience! What instrument do/did you play?

Last year at our church, we had a music day for the kids. The director asked everyone she knew who played an instrument to bring it, and then we spread out around the room so the kids could go look at and hear the different instruments.

I brought two mandolins and a viola (of course), and the kids really wanted to touch the instruments and learn how to hold them and play them. For a lot of the kids, church choir is the only music instruction they get, so it was neat for them to at least get some exposure to different instruments and see how they worked.

Dinah said...

In my past life, I was a violinist.

tinksy said...

All that music education was worth it! Dust off that fiddle and bring it with you next time. You go girl!