On Friday mornings at Gastineau Community School, students and staff fill the freshly renovated commons area for a tradition that has been alive for five years this winter.
A number of students — music teacher Patrick Murphy said it is usually about 30, but there is no set group — fill chairs or stand by one wall, kid-sized guitars in hand. Some fiddle with microphones; some mimic the facial contortions of rock stars they have seen on television; some just sit and strum.
And at Murphy’s cue, the students launch into song, playing simple guitar lines and belting out singalong songs. “The Sound of Music” showtune “Do-Re-Mi,” Pete Seeger and Lee Hays standard “If I Had a Hammer,” and 18th-century folk song “Shady Grove” are among the selections this particular Friday morning.
Though the reconfigured space now comfortably accommodates the school’s population, the acoustics aren’t great for music, Murphy admitted. But many students are dancing and singing along anyway.
Some students slouch on benches on the wall opposite the players, bored expressions on their faces. Others talk to or play with friends. A few near the back of the room shyly sing along under their breath, not getting too close to the semicircle of more animated kids and adults surrounding the strummers.
Murphy said he doesn’t mind that not all the students are at attention this morning, or other Friday mornings, even. In fact, he said that’s the “organic atmosphere” he prefers: informal, elective and noisy.
“I had to weigh, you know, was it worth my musical goals or educational goals to try to police behavior there, or would I just let it happen? And what’s interesting is that group of kids that doesn’t participate is just like the band — it rotates,” said Murphy. “Like, next week maybe four of those girls who were sitting back there visiting will be singing songs and strumming, and some of the guys that strummed today might be hanging out and visiting.”
Murphy added, “Everybody at my school is super-supportive of me. I have great support here. But there are times, like when we get new staff in, they’ll ask questions like, ‘Well, should everyone sing? These kids were playing tag in the back. That girl was dancing right in front of you. What did you want it to look like?’ And I always say, ‘That’s what I want it to look like.’”
Murphy said he believes some kids who would otherwise be musically inclined can be put off by the idea of playing for an audience.
“I think kids get really nervous about real performance,” said Murphy. “And there’s some kids that, everything they worked for, when they walk into the room and it’s the ‘stand up and be quiet and bow’ sort of thing, and all the focus is on them — some kids crack. And that’s hard for them.”
In conducting the singalongs, Murphy said he was inspired by the improvisional, rotating “Jazz Workshop” led by the late American bassist Charles Mingus.
As for the song selections, one of the hardest parts of the singalong program is finding songs for kids to sing, Murphy remarked. Many are American folk songs.
“We do some contemporary music, but I’m kind of a big believer in ‘The (Peggy) Seeger Songbook,’ ‘Songs Every American Should Know,’ that kind of thing,” Murphy said.
This is the fifth year of singalongs at Gastineau Community School. That means the fifth-graders who participated in the first singalongs are now sophomores in high school. There are many older students at Gastineau now, fourth- and fifth-graders, who have never known their school without the Friday singalong tradition.
The singalongs have spread to other elementary schools in Juneau as well, with Mendenhall River Community School and more recently Harborview Elementary School holding their own singalongs.
Mendenhall River music teacher Michael Maas said Murphy was his “inspiration” for starting the singalongs at his school two years ago.
“I basically copied the idea from him,” Maas said. “He started doing it, and the rest of us are following suit.”
The kids at Mendenhall River “really enjoy coming in and singing” Friday mornings, Maas added.
“It’s a really nice way to start the day,” said Maas. “It starts us off feeling like a community. … If for some reason we miss it, (the kids) definitely miss it if it doesn’t happen.”
Unlike the singalongs at Gastineau, Mendenhall River’s singalongs don’t feature musical instruments. But Maas, who leads a rock band for fifth-graders at the school, said he wants to eventually incorporate instrumentalists into the singalongs.
Murphy credited the Juneau School District for supporting his efforts at Gastineau, even as he has seen his own hours cut from full time to three-quarters time and the length of his class sessions with students reduced from 45 minutes to half an hour.
“The school district has funded the instrument side very well,” Murphy said. He added, “My position has been whittled down a bit, but the program has been funded.”
Murphy said the funding that music education at Gastineau has received through a Juneau School District At-Risk Music grant has enabled him to buy guitars and other stringed instruments, which he lets students check out at no charge. Not one guitar has been lost, stolen or wrecked by a student yet, he added with pride.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at email@example.com.