The Division Two Blues

Division Two Students (l to r), Henry A., Noah M., Isaiah N, and Ryan S. rehearsing

The drums and bass guitar set the rhythm together.  Layer in a subtle electric guitar riff and now the depth is real, followed by a bluesy accent of electric piano.  The spoken-word lyrics tell the rest of this sad song’s story: “The Homework Blues” (click HERE to listen).  This Wildwood version is a totally original take on a standard student critique performed by five students, members of Paula Gabriel and Hagai Izraeli’s Division Two music class.

The performance is the culmination of 12 weeks of work.  About fifteen 7th and 8th grade students gather to perform songs written and arranged by…themselves.  Listening to the music it’s hard to imagine that some of these students first played some of these instruments just three months ago. Really? Here’s how it works.

“We scaffold the kids’ work so that they all can feel comfortable and confident performing original works for their peers,” says teacher Paula Gabriel. “We began by listening to the classic blues song, ‘Good Morning Blues,’ and then listening to different artists’ interpretations of it,” Gabriel says. “After that, the students learn the blues scale and the structure of the 12-bar blues.  Then, they learn and practice notation, melody, and rhythm structure by writing their own blues compositions, before they start playing them.” After working individually, students practice their pieces with a classmate. “Then, they put it all together ~ they figure out how to collaborate,” says Hagai. Students work in groups of three or four, taking time to learn each others’ songs, choose instruments, and polish the compositions together.

Eighth grader, Julia R., sings and plays the ukulele during her performance

Eighth grader, Julia R., and Dylan V. are up.  One of their partners is absent, so today’s performance is a duet.  Julia takes up the ukulele and vocals while Dylan’s on the electric piano.  Their song, “Spring Break,” taps into a heartfelt springtime lamentation: “I woke up this morning,” Julia sings, “wishing it was still spring break” (Click HERE to listen). Dylan’s bluesy keyboarding adds to their song’s authentic feel.

After the last note, teachers Hagai and Paula offer feedback, based on notes they’ve taken during the performance. Hagai compliments the melody, then this observation, “And even though you went away from each other rhythmically for a bit, you were attuned enough to come back. That’s a great skill to have developed.”

Seventh graders (l to r), Emma L., Audrey H., and Emily N. perform a piano trio for the class

Later, Hagai and Paula tell me that providing feedback on the spot is key to helping students constantly develop and improve their abilities. “We’re working to help kids take risks artistically and personally,” says Paula.  “We want them to feel comfortable in situations that may have initially felt uncomfortable, so we let them know what they’re doing well, and what they can improve upon; it helps to build confidence.” Hagai adds that giving kids feedback on the spot, “helps to keep everyone accountable.”

I consider Paula and Hagai’s words and realize how much work has gone into the performances I enjoyed.  While teacher feedback keeps individual students accountable, I’m equally impressed by how these Wildwood students, through working collaboratively, are also enjoying the benefits of keeping themselves accountable to one another. Sounds good.

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