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The power of music has uplifted human beings since the first cave man learned how to bang a drum. Able to communicate emotion and tell tales worth sharing, music continues to be a conduit between generations and a tool for keeping history and tradition alive.
A teller of tales and a lover of music, Eric Nordbeck, a teacher at West Palms Conservatory in the Victorville Elementary School District, has always loved a particular form of American music seldom listened to by today’s younger generation. Inspired by the people of the Appalachian Mountains, bluegrass music is reminiscent of country’s twangs, yet is uniquely steeped in the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English musical traditions of the early immigrants.
Heavily influenced by African-American slaves and steeped in everyday narratives, bluegrass music has cascaded through the decades like a living, breathing force, energizing listeners and communicating stories worth passing on. Bluegrass is the music of America, and Nordbeck wanted to bring this unique medium to his kids.
Teaching History And Creating Community
“One of the things I learned right away was the kids had to be successful if they were going to accept bluegrass music. I found if I kept it simple and got them to master some chords right away they were ready to come back for more,” says Nordbeck, a recent winner of the National Life Group’s Life Changer of the Year Award.
Nordbeck, who teaches a full curriculum to fourth grade students at the school, uses the last hour of the school day to work with students from all the grades on musical performance and appreciation programs. The popularity of the bluegrass music program in the highly diverse school catapulted the entire community to procure the types of instruments required for the genre. Today the school has enough donated banjos, harmonicas, guitars and other assorted, acoustic stringed instruments, for 100 kids to experiment and learn on. He also uses bluegrass during the school day as a teaching tool, tying it into literature and history through lesson plans and guest lectures.
“The kids were excited to learn that the banjo is an African American instrument. That excitement led to a planned workshop on the banjo and black culture, coming this spring,” he explains. Nordbeck has also tied the musical genre into books the students are reading. One example is with “Little House on the Prairie.” He believes this connection between music and literature leads to a deepening of their knowledge of the time period. Nordbeck’s kids play at festivals and community events, often with professional musicians. They also give concerts and interactive performances at senior living centers in their local area.
“I think it’s important to connect senior citizens with children. If you can forge that connection, it’s so valuable to everyone,” he says. Sponsored by the Southwest Bluegrass Association, the performances are not made mandatory by the school, but the kids flock to them anyway. “The kids come to the senior center mostly on weekends and at night because they enjoy it, and so do their parents,” he adds.
Forging A Patriotic Heritage
Nordbeck’s father was part of the Air Force and his brother joined the Navy. When it was his turn to serve, his father insisted on a college education for his youngest son instead.
“After a couple years of teaching I decided it was time to do something to honor our military and teach the kids about their service. For the past 24 years, I’ve had a program for the students about Veteran’s Day,” he says. Using Chromebooks, Nordbeck’s class researches and writes scripts on various topics, ranging from learning about different branches of the military, patriotic songs, wars and battles. Music is always included.
“We send out invitations to loved ones who have been part of the military. We get around 100 veterans and their families to come join us for a school-wide assembly. We honor the veterans by performing skits, drama productions and flag ceremonies,” Nordbeck says. “The whole school learns a verse from each military branch anthem and we do a military medley. Sometimes we invite guest speakers. Last November we had a 92-year-old Iwo Jima survivor join us. He played bluegrass guitar along with the kids.”
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.