School’s Out… But the Beat Goes On.

School’s out! “Wahooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!” say the kids who are relieved of homework, homeroom, and math for the next few months. But, as much as kids probably hate to hear it, you never really stop learning, even while you’re on vacation.

When I was a kid, summer meant a lot of things, but among them was more time listening to music. In my earlier years, this meant a combination of the pop hits of the day: whatever the latest offerings were from Paula Abdul, INXS, or Milli Vanilli (yep…I had one of their cassettes), combined with whatever was playing on WKIT – a station that my parents and I all enjoyed listening to…and still do to this day!

But one summer in particular, my middle school music teacher – David Saucier – asked me if I’d be interested in learning to play bass guitar for the J.A. Leonard Middle School Jazz Band in Old Town. Having tried to learn to play piano and saxophone previously, with less than stellar success, I agreed to try. I’ll spare the stories about not practicing for a while but eventually getting to a place where I wasn’t a complete embarrassment and jump right to the point. By putting a bass guitar in the hands of a kid in middle school who still hadn’t really found his way in extracurricular activities (unless you count playing board games based on TV game shows by yourself in your bedroom), Mr. Saucier single-handedly opened the doors for me to a world FULL of amazing music.

At the time, jazz music to me was something you heard in an elevator. Sad…but it was my perspective. As I heard our middle school jazz band play songs that sounded kinda cool to a 7th grade ear, I also had the opportunity to hear jazz by some of the legends as Mr. Saucier would play a professional recording of the songs we were trying to learn. We were exposed to other groups through the Maine State Instrumental Jazz Festivals and one particular performance that stuck in my mind at the University of Maine at Augusta. As I stuck with it into high school, I had the rare opportunity to be part of a high school band that opened for the great Maynard Ferguson and his band in New Hampshire. I heard amazing high school groups playing at festivals in music-rich places like Boston and Orlando. I found myself seeking out more and more jazz CDs from the greats: Miles Davis, Buddy Rich, Jaco Pastorious, Dave Brubeck, and so many more.

Today, the doors to the worlds of music have remained wide open. My iPod has a variety on it that you might only find in the bargain bins at Reny’s. I have to believe that the simple gesture of Mr. Saucier looking for a bass player to join his middle school jazz band made this possible. As a result, I look forward to the American Folk Festival because it’s a place where I can hear live music that I now love, but might have otherwise missed out on: bluegrass, mambo, gospel, Quebecois, and Barata Natyam dance are all on the schedule for the 2015 edition.

I know…it took a while to get here, but my points are these:

  • Music education – and arts education – in schools have had a proven impact on students’ abilities to learn. In 6th grade, I was not all that interested in music education. I was failing two classes, and remember getting a 4 (out of 100) on a test. A four. Out of a hundred. I worked awfully hard to pass both of those classes for the quarter and the year…and made it through. But in 7th grade, when I started becoming more interested in music education, something clicked. It clicked in a big way, opening my mind to new ways to learn, more interesting things around me, and probably a sense of confidence. Was it all because of music education? Probably not…but I am 100% sure that it had an awful lot to do with it. There are many studies that show the benefits of arts education, including language development, inventiveness, cultural awareness, improved academic outcomes, higher career goals, and students becoming more civically engaged.
  • Back to an original point: Never stop learning. The American Folk Festival can open the eyes and ears of people young and old to new sounds and sights that you might not even know exist. Most of us have possibly heard live blues music before (this year’s festival will feature the great Preston Shannon for your listening pleasure), but how many readers have seen live Columbian Bachata? Andre Veloz will be a great first exposure for you, and as luck would have it, Andre will be performing at this year’s American Folk Festival on the Bangor Waterfront August 28 – 30.

Never stop learning. And never stop exposing yourself to new performance arts. Even if you’re knee deep in nothing but Bruno Mars and Miley Cyrus, you just might surprise yourself with what else your ears will find enjoyable.

As Paula Abdul once said, “We come together ‘cuz opposites attract.”

Dan Cashman

About Dan Cashman

Dan Cashman has been involved with the American Folk Festival since 2011 and is currently serving on the board of the Festival. For more information about the American Folk Festival, visit www.americanfolkfestival.com.