Music program in Memphis school draws on city’s roots

Music program in Memphis school draws on city’s roots
October 19, 2012
The Commercial Appeal

In a school music program as storied for what it's produced as the city it's in, seventh-grader Mia Lee picked up her first guitar on a recent day. By the end of the week, she knew enough about 12-bar blues progressions to write her own.

She doesn't know it yet, but those 12 bars will lead her from field hollers to Beale Street, rockabilly, rock 'n' roll and a musical heritage that oozes from the soil here.

"It's important to us to learn this," Mia said. "This is where we are from."

At the end of the four-week study of the blues, written by her music teacher Ken Greene, seventh- and eighth graders at Ridgeway Middle will compose and perform their own blues, produce a live blues radio show on the online platform Spreaker and create their "roots music trees" by talking to their relatives — the older the better — about the music they grew up hearing.

"As a baseline, the kids don't know a lot about blues, but they know more than they think because they have parents, family members who listen to the blues," said Greene. "By virtue of the environment here in Memphis, it just rubs off."

Greene's blues curriculum ( is part of the general music course for middle school students, one of 55 music courses in Memphis City Schools.

"When we talk about Race to the Top, if you get to the top and find there is no music education, you have to wonder if we were trying to get there too quickly," said Dru Davison, head of the MCS music department. "Part of our strategy is getting there with the whole child developed. Art is not something that is cute and after-school. It's an integral part of building the whole child."

The city schools has the nation's second-largest Orff Schulwerk enrollment (Orff emphasizes movement and improvisation in music). Its annual ArtsFest in the spring has attracted the support of local arts groups, including the Memphis Symphony. As a result, Yo-Yo Ma, performing with the symphony Oct. 22, will be at Colonial Middle the next day, working with performing arts students.

A week ago, 130 eighth-grade city orchestra students performed at Levitt Shell with jazz violinist Randy Sabien, "communicating on the spot what's inside their minds to a live audience," Davison said.

"As soon as their part of the concert was over, their teachers performed. The kids were screaming their support for their teachers, who were playing Earth, Wind & Fire, Ozzy Osbourne and Michael Jackson.

"It's cool for kids to see their teachers performing."

Greene and his wife, Robyn, also a MCS music teacher, moved here from Delaware seven years ago to be close to the region's music and teach in the schools that shaped Elvis Presley, Kirk Whalum, Alex Chilton, the Chickasaw Syncopators (the Manassas band that changed its name to Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra when it began touring) and Maurice White, among others.

"Everything was so exciting," Greene said. "To be in the center of all this rich culture, the allure was overwhelming."

In his second year here, he was instrumental in Ridgeway getting $15,000 in technology from Best Buy. This year, his work was recognized by National Middle School Association.

His online curriculum is embedded with voice threads that tell the story of how blues evolved, from Robert Johnson and Son House to Keb Mo and his slide bar. Greene can tell his students are working on the site nights and weekends based on their web posts.

He built the site for students who are not enrolled in either band or choir and likely don't realize the relevance of music or the role their hometown plays.

"Nontraditional music classes are needed, and I see why," Greene says. "It means every student in the building is in touch with music somehow. Coming here gives them a chance to explore even more."

The work in his classes tends to be hands on — on drums, sound mixing software, guitars and in the recording studio environment Greene creates. Students get a two- to three-minute briefing, then go to work in the adjoining recording room or at desks with large-screen computers. Last year, they hooked up online with students in Ghana, sharing the blues via Skype.

Besides knowing the difference between B.B. King and Robert Johnson (a course must), some of the most valued skills in the workplace are performance and improvisation, Davison says.

"CEO's are improvising and performing. Just like blues musicians, they are taking what they know, synthesizing it and performing it on the spot. It's what our employers ask of us. We do that for all our music students."
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