It seems that all Minnesotans are celebrating the Grammy win of the local kids’ bluegrass duo, the Okee Dokee Brothers, but none more than my students. Ever since the Okee Dokee Brothers visited my school last spring and performed a concert, my students have been obsessed with their music. They beg to listen to “Bluegrass for Breakfast” every day. They regularly ask me when the band is coming back to the school. Any time they hear a banjo, someone will comment that it’s the instrument that Justin plays. So in honor of their victory, we held our own version of the Grammys in my classes.
To teach my first and second graders about the process of the Grammys, we discussed terminology (“the academy,” “nominee,” “voting,” etc.), the trophy, and the televised award show. Then we viewed music videos from the five nominees in our “class favorite” category: The Black Keys, Eighth Blackbird, Mumford & Sons, Taylor Swift, and of course, the Okee Dokee Brothers. Unsurprisingly, the announcer in each class named the Okee Dokee Brothers the winner based on the votes of the class academy. And there was much rejoicing! We then watched the video of their actual Grammy acceptance speech.
Watching videos in school is pretty exciting for students, no matter what the content. But to watch a video of people they had actually met in real life was really special. One little girl gasped and covered her mouth with her hands when she recognized Joe and Justin on the stage with their Grammy. My students were suddenly interested in current events in music, simply because they were able to create a personal connection with this band.
My classes listen to many recordings of high quality performances, but the impression that those recordings make on my students is nothing compared to a live performance. I did a unit last year on Holst’s The Planets, and although my students did successfully learn about the piece, I doubt that they could tell me much of anything about the music if I asked them now. But after one 45 minute performance by the Okee Dokee Brothers, even my first grade students still know the words to their songs, can tell about the trip down the Mississippi that inspired their album, and can accurately describe the difference between a guitar and banjo. They are engaged audience members–a role that is too often undervalued.
The Okee Dokee Brothers were not the only Grammy nominated musicians to visit our school last year. The Minnesota Orchestra played a few kids concerts in the community and John Miller, principal bassoonist, personally visited my classes. Classical music is not usually the favorite of five through nine year olds, but John Miller signed about 50 autographs that day, many of which were on arms whose owners claimed would never be washed again. One kindergartner’s mother told me about the poster of the Minnesota Orchestra that hangs in her daughter’s bedroom. She enjoys identifying the players photographed, reminiscing about when her class saw the orchestra play, and drawing pictures of their instruments. Kids don’t need music to be simplified for them to enjoy it. They enjoy music that involves them, no matter what the genre.
So much of the value of music education is in teaching students to begin a lifelong engagement and participation in culture. In my experience, the best way to do that is through the multi-sensory and interactive experience of live performances.