Datebook: Junior High Students Embrace 'Coronavirus Blues' | WGLT

Datebook: Junior High Students Embrace 'Coronavirus Blues'

May 22, 2020

Any blues musician will tell you that everyone gets the blues. But for the past few months, that line has changed to “nearly everyone now has the blues.”

Shelter-in-place orders given in March to battle the coronavirus mean stress levels remain high.

That includes teachers and professors from elementary schools through colleges. They had to get creative on a dime with little to no training to teach online.

“The project started early in May when I received an email from Alfred Music with access to free remote learning lessons,” said Lincoln Junior High Band Director Peggy Larson, who was simply trying to keep 47 students engaged in music while they learned from home.

“So, as I read through the lessons available, I chose one that is called ‘writing your own blues song.’”

“The Boredom Blues” was written by Lincoln Junior High sixth grader and flute player Emery Kitterman.

Well I’m stuck, stuck at home

With nothing to play

Please won’t somebody

Give me something, something to do

“I wrote it because since we’re in quarantine right now I really miss my friends and get bored a lot because I don’t have that many people to talk to besides my family,” said Kitterman.

Larson first introduced the students to blues songs and history through a Google Classroom assignment that turned into a cross-curricular exercise with Language Arts. She included links to blues videos from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy.

“And then the next step was to show them examples of the lyrics in traditional blues writing,” said Larson. “From there they were supposed to follow the examples of lyrical form writing for blues music and create their own lyrics.”

Then it was studio time with husband John, the jazz ensemble director at Normal Community High School, who put the lyrics to blues music using the music accompaniment software Band-in-a-Box. The final step involved Normal Community West High School Choir Director Sara Williams.

“To take the lyrics and improvise melodies using the student’s words over the backgrounds we had created,” said Larson.

Larson said the lament of blues lyrics was an ideal fit for the assignment because many people are dealing with anguish and/or depression.

“And I wanted them to have a way to express their emotions about how they’ve been feeling sheltering at home and having to learn from home,” said Larson.

It worked for Emery Kitterman, author of "The Boredom Blues."

“It helped me to get it out of my system a little better,” she said.

Eighth grade pianist and percussionist Corbin O’Grady’s song, “I Missed the Train,” didn’t tackle the current crises, but rather something more personal.

I hurry to the station

I missed the train

It was a bad day

I sat in sadness and started to complain

Cause I missed the train

“I ride the train quite a bit because I go to my Mom’s on the train sometimes and I like riding the train,” said O’Grady. "I’ve never personally missed a train, but I know it’s probably frustrating to miss it and have to wait for another one.”

Corbin said the produced song sounded about the way he imagined it.

“When I was going through it I was trying to sing it to myself to try see what it would sound like and see if it would sound good … how the syllables worked together and the rhymes … but when it came back I thought it was really cool, like my song came to life,” said O’Grady.

Peggy Larson was impressed with the variety of lyrical themes students created, but said those themes coalesced around five basic ideas.

“Being bored and the words corona and virus came up a lot in the lyrics. Quarantine was also a big topic," said Larson, adding she was most surprised by the student level of participation. Thirty-seven of the 47 students finished the assignment.

“Because when I launched the whole assignment, I was concerned whether the students would be interested in doing what was essentially a writing assignment. But I feel like the percentage of students who completed the project was very high and I was quite pleased.”

Larson said the entire project, from critiquing the lyrics to producing the songs with her husband and vocalist Sara Williams, took about 20 hours.

And that each student had their own unique musical background.

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