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Americana Music Project
High school strikes the right chord

In a continuing effort to increase school participation, decrease dropout rates and offer the highest quality of education, the Pagosa Springs High School has just begun the first semester of a new music curriculum.

Called the Americana Project, the class description sounds more like something found at a college or university, but is in fact an export of a program from an Oregon school. PSHS is the first Colorado school to implement the program, and the route it took to get here is a familiar story of chance encounters and local leaders with a vision for excellence.

In 2009, local musician and educator Bob Hemenger performed at the Sisters Folk Festival in Sisters, Ore. Hemenger was introduced to Sisters resident Brad Tisdale through mutual friends and Tisdale was invited to Pagosa Springs to speak about a program he had created in the Sisters School District. Through a small grant, Tisdale came to the Archuleta County school district last August and led a workshop with Hemenger and fellow PSHS teachers Shawn Downing, Dan Burch and Rebekah Pepiton. That group of teachers are also involved with the Fine Arts Magnet Academy (FAMA), an honors program where high school students choose one to two areas of involvement from among visual arts, music, theatre and video/TV production. Now in its second year, the FAMA instructors were seeing enthusiasm and results from students in art and music programs.

After the August workshop on the Americana Music program, school district administrators worked with the local teachers to gain a grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts and applied it to implementing the Americana program at the high school.

“I feel fortunate to be in a district that supports this kind of program,” stresses Hemenger. “Our school district believes in supporting the whole child.”

High school principal David Hamilton agrees. He worked with school district superintendent Mark Devoti, a musician himself, to get the program into the high school and sees the Americana program as another way to get kids connected to school and to achieve.

“It would be pretty blah if our kids can learn basic reading and computing but can’t be creative,” Hamilton says.

High school art teacher Rebekah Pepiton liked the idea of creating an arts program that was self-sustaining and was impressed with the model of the Sisters program that had been working in Oregon for nine years.

“Not only does the program not pull anything from school district funds,” she says, “the Sisters program brings in money to cover the program costs.”

The Americana Music Project will be a class on the history of Americana music, which is best described as American roots music. The class will involve American history and the students will do research, learn to write their own music, and learn to record their creations.

“The class will be a study in poetry, musical meter, improvisation, and how it all works together into creating music,” says Pepiton.

For the first semester and trial run of the program, the class will be combined with the existing jazz band music class and will be co-taught by Hemenger and jazz band instructor Dan Burch.

“Whether every student in jazz band will want to participate is not yet known,” says Burch, but Hemenger will be in the class to assist and tag team with Burch for the Americana part of the curriculum. A main feature of the program is the study of the historical aspects of Americana music, which will be implemented with a guitar-based song writing course. The goal at the end of the class is to give students the knowledge to write and record their own songs.

“We’re trying to give students the skills to write, record and perform their own music from a guitar-based standpoint,” Burch says. “We have a whole semester of testing the waters to tweak the program and make it work.”

The class will encompass not only the final outcome of creating music, but an analysis of music, its history and role as an art form, and the production skills that go along with creating and performing original music. The program will encourage the idea of good songwriting and helping students understand what separates a simple, short-lasting pop song from a folk song that resonates for a long period of time. By teaching students what music is all about, the goal for advanced students will be to have them produce a CD of their own original music. In addition, the class will work in conjunction with other school programs and tie in history, writing, performance, graphic arts, and even business. Part of the class will have students work with local music nonprofits such as Acoustic Trail Inc. and FolkWest to learn about how to put on a live show — from creating posters and promoting the event to working with the business side of the production.

So what exactly is Americana music? As defined by the Americana Music Association, it is “American roots music based on the traditions of country.” While the music can be traced back to the marriage of “hillbilly” and rhythm and blues styles, the genre developed as a radio format in the 1990s as a reaction to the highly polished sound that seemed to be the mainstream of that decade. Because many artists did not fit into the country or rock genres, the Americana format was developed. Other sources describe Americana as music that honors, and is derived from, the traditions of American roots music inspired by American culture traditions. Like jazz music, Americana spans a wide range of sounds and artists, from Johnny Cash and Lyle Lovett to Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

Hamilton, a great believer in the arts, said he has seen good brainstorming and planning for this class. Part of his reason for supporting the program was a 2008 study by the Colorado Council on the Arts (CCA) on the subject of arts education in public schools. The CCA is a division of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade and invests in communities across the state “to ensure that the cultural, educational and economic benefits of the arts are enjoyed by Colorado youth, citizens and visitors.”

Although the 2008 study showed that arts education associates with higher reading, writing and science scores, lowers dropout rates and helps better prepare students for future education in the workplace, the percentage of schools offering some formal arts education is lowest at the high school level. Fifty-three percent of high school students are not taking any arts courses. Another finding showed Colorado schools that offer more arts education have higher academic achievement and lower dropout rates. The study shows that for many students, the arts are the crucial connection that motivates them to learn and gives them the confidence to tackle other subjects such as math or science. Bringing a new art program to the local school district was a direct result of Principal Hamilton asking himself, “How can I help our kids from dropping out and being a burden on society?”

Hemenger notes the many kids he sees playing guitar in the hallways at the high school have had no interest in joining a band class. “We wanted to give these kids a place to be, to explore their creativity,” he says.

“And this program is another way to have our kids connect with their teachers,” Hamilton adds. He notes that with a lot of federal stimulus money on the line, Colorado has positioned themselves to be a part of that funding source — which is based largely on school achievement and dropout rates.

For the first three years, the Americana music class will be based on guitar music, but will continue in subsequent years with other instruments as funding allows. There is already an after-school guitar program at the junior high school and the high school instructors hope to have a feeder program at the lower grade levels to get the kids there fired up about writing and performing music. Mentoring will also be an important piece of the Americana program curriculum and the students will get a chance to work with both local and visiting musicians. Other program curriculum includes live guitar performances, journal writing, listening tests, music theory and literature. The instructors want to encourage students to learn about music as a form of story telling, such as studying the music of Woody Guthrie to find out what was happening in the world at that time.

Video documentation and a role in music production and promotion will also be a part of the class. A long-term goal of the program is to have the Americana music students perform fund-raisers to help pay for a recording studio in the high school music department, opening up possibilities for post-high school careers as studio technicians or sound engineers.

For now, the program is beginning as the first class of its kind in Colorado schools and the faculty and administrators in the district are as excited as the students to see how the program will work. Although the initial startup grant was enough to fund the staff training, curriculum and a dozen entry level guitars, the instructors see the need for more high-end guitars with built-in pickups for recording. If you are interested in donating an item or money, or you would like more information on the program, contact Bob Hemenger, bobhemenger@hotmail.com, or Rebekah Pepiton, rpepiton@pagosa.k12.co.us. For more information about art in schools, visit www.keepartinschools.org.