Monday, October 13, 2014

Meet Pete Santucci, Music Teacher for Ross Valley District

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Meet Pete Santucci, Music teacher from Ross Valley District , and member of the YES Foundation. Peter is not only a music lover and loved member of the community, but he is also a strong advocate for the positive impacts of art and music education for our children. We asked him a few questions about music and education, and by reading a few of his answers below, you can see how great of an influence music can have, and how music education is fundamentally important and relevant in many aspects of our lives.

At what age were you aware of music as a form of expression?

I'm not sure when I became aware of music as a form of expression, but I think I always considered it a form of expression, since before I could speak. I grew up in a giant Catholic family as the 11th of 16 children, all from the same mom and dad, with no twins, no triplets, and no adoptions. Our home was like a huge one-room school house, and all my siblings played music at school, sang in the choir, or strummed the guitar. My mother was constantly singing to the latest baby (16 of us over the course of 23 years!) and my dad was constantly humming or whistling, so I grew up in a very rich home culture of musical expression! I think that singing and playing music with kids at an early age is vitally important to their development of musical aptitude and interest.

What do you find to be the most remarkable thing about teaching music to kids?

I think the most amazing thing about teaching music to kids is observing the sense of wonder, joy, and contentment that children feel when they sing, dance, and play instruments. Their energy and enthusiasm are infectious, and that is my favorite thing about being a music teacher! Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, "When I am singing and dancing, I feel at peace with the world." I think that is true for almost all children. And what's more, it is a totally natural part of being a child, that can develop very powerfully with only a small amount of nurturing and encouragement!

Does everyone have their own unique rhythm?

Rhythm, like mathematics, is universal. There are only a certain number of discreet rhythmic patterns that can exist, but there are an infinite number of ways to combine them and perform them at different tempos and in different styles. I think everyone does have their own unique rhythm, in a subtle way that is analogous to everyone having a unique heartbeat. Each person may have a slightly different tempo, or different cycle of when to go faster and when to go slower, or different simuli that cause them to react in their own way, but the general patterns inherent within us are universal across all of humanity. I have noticed, for example, after studying West African drumming for many years, that when I hear ancient traditional drumming patterns from India, Korea, or Native American cultures, I can recognise many of the exact same patterns within their music. Human beings have two hands, two feet, and one heart, and thus many of the same rhythms unite all of humanity.

Do you believe in child prodigies ? If so, what do you think they teach us? If not, why not?

I have met child prodigies, and been quite amazed by them. I think what prodigies teach us is the amazing potential of the human brain and heart, if given the right environment and support to succeed. What I have read leads me to believe that prodigies are not merely the result of innate talent, but rather that the individual possesses unusual innate talents, coupled with unusual levels of passion, desire, or sometimes obsession, nurtured by a home environment that fuels and renews both. The interesting thing is that great child prodigies do not always go on to become great leaders in their field as adults. Sometimes they become disillusioned, frustrated, or just lose interest. Some do not have the personality or motivation to succeed at a high level as adults.

Should parents force a child to practice an instrument?

Similar to practicing athletics, I think that it should be rare that parents should have to force a child to practice an instrument. I think forced practice, though occasionally necessary, is not sustainable in the long-term. Parents should always try to find ways to support and encourage their children's music practice. That includes creating a regular schedule for practice, and providing a private, safe place to practice, where it is OK to make mistakes or to make sounds that are not always the most pleasing to the ear. For some kids, it is crucial to be able to practice without feeling they are being judged. Parents can also help to motivate the child to practice. At times the motivation may be reinforced with stickers or some sort of child-prefered activity that the student gets to engage in after the practice session is completed. Just as with exercise, the hardest part is simply getting your running shoes on and getting out the door. Once you get started, you begin to have fun and feel good. So it is with practice. The hardest part is simply siting down with the instrument! And the more you practice, the more success you have, and the more fun it is to play!

Is "digital music" music?

It can be. This question depends on your very definition of music itself. Is a sound musical based on the intention of it's creator, or on the perceptions and reactions of the listener? I tend to think it is the later. Beauty and meaning are in the ear, brain, and heart of the listener. What is noise to some, is music to others. I sometimes even catch my brain interweaving different types of musical rhythms and phrases inside my head while I am waiting at a left-turn light, listening to the clicking sound of my car's turn signal!

Tell me about working in a music program funded by a community foundation - what are the advantages and what are the challenges?

Working in a district with a community funded art and music program has been such a amazingly positive experience for me. The Yes Foundation funds art, music, poetry and theater programs, in addition to providing money for library books and technology in the Ross Valley School District. The challenge can be that some people may wonder if the art and music teachers are "real teachers" or just talented people hired by the foundation. In fact, the Yes Foundation raises the money for the district to pay for the teachers, but we are credentialed teachers who are fully certified by the state, and are hired, evaluated, and administrated in the same way as all of the teachers in the district. This takes a huge amount of coordination and cooperation between the foundation and the school district. It also requires the teachers and parents to take an active role in planning, coordinating and advocating for the growth and development of the music department. The big advantages are that our jobs are much more secure than in most districts, and that the children have more consistent access to art and music classes in grades K-8 than in many public school districts that cannot afford to continue offering classes in subject areas that are not mandated by the state nor assessed by the state's required academic tests. Beyond simply providing funding, I can also feel the support and pride of the entire community all around me; parents, business partners, district administrators and fellow teachers. It is a great feeling!

What is the hardest part of your job?

By far the most difficult part of my job as an elementary music teacher is prioritizing what the most important skills are to teach to each age group, and deciding the best ways to teach those skills in the very limited time I have with my students -- only once per week for 45 minutes. I wish they could have music class 45 minutes everyday, just as the students who sign up for music at our middle school do!

What is the importance of music in a child’s education?

Like other arts, music is a discreet form of thought and expression. The greater number of ways that children can understand things, connect thoughts and express ideas, the richer their education will be. The process of learning music has many similarities to verbal language and mathematics, the dominant forms of expression in our culture, and thus musical training can help many children with academic achievement when learning language and math. And yet it is quite different from those forms of thought because it is more abstract and varied. It connects us deeply to our history, culture and emotions in a way that is unique and powerful. Above all, I think that creating and dancing to music connects us to our humanity, and to other human beings, in ways that other subjects cannot. By singing, dancing, and playing instruments together, we gain a new and deeper understanding of ourselves and all human life throughout all cultures and all times. I believe that as our society grows ever more influenced by the demands and distractions of technological advances as well as competition to make more money, music education is one of the crucial subjects that will help children stay grounded and connected to each other as honest, empathetic human beings, building mutual respect for each other through meaningful, face-to-face, cooperative interactions.

Beatles or Stones?

Beatles, of course. Not even close! But, honestly, I'm just young enough that I never really had to make that choice. By far my favorite band is RUSH, the Canadian wonder-trio of hard progressive rock! These three guys have been writing and performing complex and socially aware hard rock music together since 1975, and are still creating new albums of music and performing at an amazingly high level of technical and artistic mastery. I just attended a show during their latest concert tour about a year ago. Totally incredible.

You may contact Pete Santucci at psantucci@rossvalleyschools.org, and please consider helping the Yes Foundation by going to YesToKids.org to donate or volunteer.

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