Teaching from the heart and head in the Vail Valley
AVON, Colorado – When a friend asked Jake Wolf to teach elementary school music, he thought he was being punked.
He was a drummer in a few different rock bands, and as he was walking through the music room during the job interview, he kept waiting for the cameras to pop out.
He said the guys in the bands had asked, “Do you think someone in their right mind is going to have you teach children?”
“No,” Wolf replied. “I’m being punked.”
He wasn’t being punked.
Turns out, a drummer from a couple of Grateful Dead tribute bands with very little teaching experience was exactly who Avon Elementary School principal Melissa Rewold-Thuon wanted.
“I wanted a real musician to inspire kids to play music,” she said.
Wolf told her, “If you’re looking for Mr. Holland’s Opus, that’s not me. But if you want Jack Black’s ‘School of Rock’ – that I can do.”
Now, five years later, Wolf has been nominated for a Grammy Award for excellence in music education. In fact, so many people submitted nominations that the Grammy people stopped taking them.
The Grammy committee selects 10 finalists around May 1 and one winning teacher after that.
Wolf teaches from his heart and head, not from some standardized curriculum that insists singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in rounds is a good idea. Honest. It’s right there in the curriculum.
Wolf’s students know the Circle of Fifths. Do you know the Circle of Fifths? It’s a visual representation of the relationships among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, so now you do. But Wolf’s kindergartners knew it before you.
“They’re little sponges. They get it,” Wolf said.
Still, he said he can’t count the times a kid has stormed up to him and growled, “Mr. Wolf, I can’t play this!”
He’s heard it the same number of times he has replied, “No, you can’t play this … yet!”
Teaching is not Wolf’s fall-back gig. He said he’s in it for keeps. After five years he still makes about $13 an hour and is considered a part-time sub, so he’s not in it for the money.
“I’m here because I want to be,” he said.
He said he figured he’d do it for a year. That was 2006; his year isn’t up yet.
“Something special was happening, and I couldn’t leave,” Wolf said.
Like the time Yo Yo Ma showed up to work with his second-graders.
Yo Yo Ma told him that formal music education aims at the note. It’s not about that, he said. It’s about the opportunity to play the note.
“Playing something perfectly is impossible given the time we have in our lives,” Wolf said.
He’s a teacher to his very marrow but still looks the part of a rock musician. Wolf’s long hair hangs down from under his cowboy hat. The bandanna he wears always matches his shirt – very stylish. When we caught up with him, his matching bandanna and T-shirt were orange.
Wolf’s working musician friends swing by his classroom to play with students. The Shook Twins were there before their Vilar Center show. A singer from a local reggae band, the pianist from Leftover Salmon, a Polynesian drummer from Hawaii – they keep coming by. Meanwhile, Wolf creates lessons in advance and on the fly, and the kids keep learning.
It wasn’t always that way. For years, Avon Elementary’s instruments collected dust in a closet.
Wolf walked in, and school of rock was in session.
Kids are a tough audience, and he was nervous that first day, especially when the older kids were being, well … older kids with a new teacher.
Later that same day, 18 kindergartners started screaming and no one could get them to stop. Finally a Spanish-speaking teacher came in (most of the kids were native Spanish speakers). The kids thought Wolf’s classroom mascot, the Muppet drummer Animal, was the Mexican boogie man Chupacabra.
And that was Day 1.
On Day 2, he and those same kindergartners tried a call and response. Wolf clapped out a rhythm and sang verses of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” The kids clapped and sang back – 18 adorable young faces soaking up everything as fast as they could.
“It was so powerful. That was the moment I thought, ‘I can do a lot of good with this,'” he said.
Wolf’s own music education has its foundation deep in the classics. He studied four years at The Hartt School conservatory in Hartford, Conn. He enrolled in music industry studies at the University of Colorado-Denver, and by 1998, he was playing full time with the Grateful Dead tribute band Shakedown Street, logging as many as 200 gigs per year.
He got a different kind of education when he flew a mountain bike off a cliff near State Bridge and landed in a wheelchair. As he spent a couple of years relearning to walk, this is what occurred to him: “Here I am, so lucky, and I’m not giving back.”
All that life has given him a unique perspective on education and music’s important place in it.
“Children have an inherent right to music, and these institutions are failing them. Who’s left? The musicians. The Grammys realize it, too. If we don’t do something, we’re going to have really crappy music in 20 or 30 years,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.