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Music as culture — or curriculum?

Richard Godson makes music wherever he goes.As a Haines Junction’s band instructor, Godson appears to be calmly multi-tracking his way…

Richard Godson makes music wherever he goes.

As a Haines Junction’s band instructor, Godson appears to be calmly multi-tracking his way through life.

He sees music as a fun way to express feelings and reflect culture.

And his practice doesn’t necessarily fit a prescribed curriculum.

“I really like the notion that music is for all people, and all people should participate,” he says.

That approach has reaped benefits for himself, his students and the community.

Over the past 18 years, the fun-loving music teacher at St. Elias Community School has nurtured dozens of students.

Godson is happy to hear that some of his former students are still playing music and are forming or joining bands.

Some of them, along with the majority of the town’s teenagers, will hit the open stage at the Alsek Music Festival in June, he says.

Godson tackles one task after another, but watching him in action, gives the impression he handles it well by being focused and calm.

It is 5:30 p.m. and the telephone rings in his school office. While he answers it, the second line rings, then the third.

He efficiently deals with line one. He tells someone on line two that tonight is parent teacher interviews. He needs to be back at the school by 7 p.m.

He loses the caller on line three.

Godson immediately returns to the task at hand, unruffled, unhurried.

To describe the music man as busy is an understatement.

Godson instructs 10 band classes per week and conducts lunch-hour and after-school music practices.

He organizes an annual school band concert, then tours his students around the territory to showcase their achievement.

(On one tour they stopped in Whitehorse and cut a CD with Laurie Malo at Rainbow Studios.)

Currently, Godson is helping his students to produce their own CDs by multi-tracking and over-dubbing, using the school’s computers.

Apart from his school band work, the versatile musician practises a few times a week with his three adult bands — Ruby Rangers, 1016, and Brenda Berezan.

For these he plays guitar, writes songs, and occasionally sings. His latest challenge is to learn to play the mandolin for Ruby Rangers bluegrass band.

The three bands open concerts for other musicians, jam, and play their own gigs. (Ruby Rangers and Brenda Berezan band have just returned from performing at the Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau.)

As well, Godson regularly becomes unofficial stage technician for events at the town’s convention centre, and he is a chief organizer of the annual Alsek Music Festival.

Oh yes, he is also vice principal of the school and teaches five double English classes per week.

Godson balances all this with his wife, Peggy — whom he says is “very patient, tolerant and supportive, even after 29 years of music and marriage” — and three children, all of whom are musical.

He admits that sometimes things “get a bit hectic,” and he cites an example.

The festival weekend follows the last few weeks of the school year, a demanding time for all school staff.

“But it’s like a catharsis when I’ve worked my way through all the stuff,” says Godson. “Watching the people at the festival having fun makes it all worthwhile.”

So what is his redeeming feature in managing this maelstrom of activity?

Godson suggests that his even temperament helps. Then he expands on his philosophy about music and making music, maintaining that this encourages him to persevere when his life “becomes a whirlwind.

“It has always occurred to me that music is a very cultural thing,” he says. “It’s a human thing, an emotional thing. It expresses joy and sadness. It’s something everybody should have.

“But somehow in our western culture the perception of music went away from the thought that music should be about expressing joy and sadness or other emotion.

“Music became all about hard work and discipline and theory.” 

Godson goes on to suggest that music became an elite activity, a privilege for the upper echelon.

“I really believe that music is for all.”

Godson holds that this thought has been a driving force for him in teaching people to do music rather than making it an academic exercise.

He brings that idea into the classroom, encouraging his students to help decide which songs to learn, the ones they can feel and express — their songs.

Pop rock is a favourite genre.

Godson guides his students to learn by listening and playing music, not dwelling on theory and reading notes.

One might say he draws music out of them rather than stuffing it in.

“I show them only so much and they have to run with it. We start out with simple patterns and use chord charts quite a bit.

“My feeling is that there are not many students in Haines Junction who want to go on to play in the Vancouver Symphony. Most kids want to learn guitar, piano, or drums for their own fun and personal development.”

He adds that he does encourage his students to take formal private lessons if they want the academics of music.

Godson began playing guitar at age 12; he plays by ear, but does he also read notes?

He nods an affirmative, laughs, then repeats Pete Seeger’s alleged answer when asked that question: “Yes, I read notes, but not enough to hurt my playing.

“There are music teachers out there who would kill me for saying that,” he adds.

Working with the students is rewarding for Godson, and he feels much gratification from the parents in the community. He describes one aspect he particularly likes.

“If you put kids on the stage, and they sound great, parents love it. If you put kids on the stage, and they don’t sound great, parents love it.”

Now that’s positive thinking, that’s music.

The school bands will perform this year’s spring concert on Tuesday, April 25, at St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction.

They will travel to Watson Lake, Teslin, Carcross, and a couple of Whitehorse schools in May.