By Andy Hinds
I have exactly one memory from 7th grade music class: being called to the carpet for clowning on the song our choir was preparing for a recital. I was mocking the song partially because I couldn’t hit the notes, but mostly because I felt like I would literally die if I sincerely tried to, given the material. Our teacher had assigned us the schlockiest song ever, “You Light up my Life,” popularized by Debbie Boone, which probably hastened my transformation into an angry 8th grade punk rocker. I never got a chance to thank her for that.
These days, when I help my twins with their 6th grade music homework, they ask for suggestions on what song goes best with a movie car chase (“Ace of Spades” obviously), what I think about the synthesizer track on their latest electronic music composition or which pop song to add to their class playlist. They are also playing traditional instruments, learning music theory, getting exposed to jazz legends like Dave Brubeck, and going on “virtual field trips” to presentations by international music organizations. And this is all happening while the pandemic is keeping kids physically isolated from their peers, teachers and potential music collaborators.
The music program at Roosevelt International Middle School (adjacent to Elephant Odyssey at the San Diego Zoo) was just coming into its own when COVID cancelled all the nice things.
Nathan Elias-Kocivar, the 30-year-old director of the program, who started his music education career by substitute teaching to supplement his income as a tenor sax and keyboard player, analyzed the musical needs of the community, came up with a plan, and was implementing it when the pandemic struck.
Mr. E-K (as Elias-Kocivar’s students call him) grew up in OB and Point Loma, and got his music degree at UC Santa Cruz. He was teaching guitar and keyboard for after-school programs when he got a chance to sub at Roosevelt for an extended period. The students, administration, and families reacted enthusiastically to Mr. E-K’s approach, which emphasized the joy and creativity inherent in playing music.
Soon, he found himself splitting his time between teaching at Roosevelt and San Diego High School. At this point, he noticed that he had over 100 band and orchestra students at SDHS, very few of whom had any formal musical training. Ironically, SDHS offers the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) music diploma to qualifying students, but the cluster of schools feeding into SDHS was not preparing kids to perform at that level. Mr. E-K and the District Powers That Be decided it would best serve the SDHS cluster if he “pushed from behind” to prepare the middle school students for the Big Time. And that’s how the Roosevelt Music Program in its current-but-pre-pandemic iteration was created.
Like many learned musicians, Mr. E-K sees jazz as the apotheosis of music and the North Star for his pedagogical approach. As he sees it, jazz represents “a gray area between being creative and learning the technical aspects of playing their instruments.” Students, he said, “are invited to play whatever they want within the canvas of the work; and also, jazz is dance music, so it makes people feel good and makes them want to move.” Before San Diego Unified schools went online, Roosevelt had two band classes, two orchestra classes, guitar, and choir. Jazz band was run as either an after-school club, a before-school club, a lunchtime club, or within the band class. Regardless, all roads lead to jazz.
Almost as soon as Mr. E-K got the Roosevelt Music Program swinging, a certain virus barged in and broke up the party. But like any master of improvisation, Mr. E-K drew from a deep well of creativity and came up with something unexpectedly cool.
While adapting traditional music instruction to an online format can be difficult and inefficient, there’s a whole other musical universe that relies on technology and doesn’t require physical proximity. Mr. E-K was already passionate about creating music on the computer; so it was not a stretch for him to refocus the Music Program on music composition, production, and technology using programs like Breezin Thru Theory, BandLab, and one that he particularly stoked about, Soundtrap. Soundtrap, owned by Spotify, waived the subscription fees to give Roosevelt students a chance to not only write and record music on their platform, but also to share and collaborate with their classmates. He also acquired, with grant money, 70 MIDI keyboards (think small-pianos-you-plug-into-a-computer) to enrich the online music experience for the kids. Students who choose to take band or orchestra as an elective still practice and record their traditional instruments with the help of programs like Smart Music, that allow them to “play along” with backing tracks as the sheet music scrolls up their screens.
A music program can’t run on talent and passion alone. Luckily, a group of enthusiastic parents and community members coalesced around the Roosevelt Music Program to help with planning events, logistical support, promotion, and of course, fundraising.
Not only do they need to help pay for the various online platforms, but the Music Boosters also continue to organize enrichment opportunities for students and families, aka “virtual field trips.”
According to Music Boosters Communication Officer Pauline Treviño, “We’re bringing the world into their Zoom classrooms with our new ‘Travel the World Through Music’ program. We partner with organizations like the Center for World Music to participate in live stream musical presentations which include Q&A with the artists. We’ve ‘traveled’ to Mexico, Vietnam and South Africa through music! We’re also planning on making connections with international cultural institutes and schools so that our students can experience what music education is outside of the United States.”
Both Mr. E-K and Treviño have been pleasantly surprised at how the online music program has provided a meaningful musical education to students this year, and remarked on the lessons this disaster has force-fed us all. As a parent, I have been delighted to see my kids engaged in creating music in ways new to them and me. Mr. E-K plans to continue with the computer based composition/production component of his classes, as well as bringing in guest musicians from all over the world via Zoom, now that the whole Zoom experience has been normalized and tweaked for greatest utility.
Looking back, I suspect my 7th grade music teacher, who was fairly young and hip, made us sing that terrible song because it was the one she already had sheet music for. Say what you will about the internet dystopia we are all wallowing in these days, at least our children have better access to good music than we ever did.
Too learn more about Roosevelt International Middle School and the Roosevelt Music Program, go to www.friendsofroosevelt.org.
— Andy Hinds is a dad, carpenter, and freelance writer based in North Park. Follow him on Twitter @betadad.