Woody Cowan inspiring youth through music
Published 5:45 pm Friday, January 2, 2009
Woody Cowan I arrived at Tryon Elementary on the last day before winter break to meet Woody Cowan and find out more about the program mentioned by Justin Carlson that most recently sent the teen band &dquo;The Stray Bullet Band&dquo; out into the community. He met me out front. Conveniently located outside the back door of the auditorium were two portables added to expand classroom space. This is where I have my student class, the second mobile unit. (jokingly) I&squo;ve been ostracized to the edge of the campus. They haven&squo;t run me all the way out of town, but they&squo;re getting close. They&squo;ve put you where they can&squo;t hear you. That&squo;s right. This is where we do our application. The acoustics are terrible, but we make the best of it. There&squo;s more than one band room in a portable in this country. That&squo;s the truth. The gentleman that was the superintendent of the Tryon City Schools, Vernon Dusenbury, when they merged with the county he took money that was in the Tryon City School budget and he sank it into the renovation of this auditorium. So, we are fortunate to have this. This week we&squo;ve had two shows, Wednesday and Thursday, we had a third grade talent show and yesterday fourth and fifth. I had my guitar kids play. Ms. Rogers, she&squo;s the art and drama teacher so we usually get together in cohort and do some drama and things together. We try to help each other out and work together very well. It&squo;s great when teachers are working together in the arts. We have to. When budgets are tight you have to pull together your creative ideas. Absolutely, but this is a wonderful facility with the lights, we are fortunate. See that nice old Hardman piano over there. That is a nice piano, and you have the microphones and stands. You have the equipment to put on a show. We&squo;ve just bought it over the years. PTA&squo;s been good to us. Does the auditorium get used outside of school performances? We&squo;ve had a lot of town meetings here. When Rogers Park has a rain out it might move up here or something like that. Through our enrichment program we&squo;ve had people come like Glenis Redmond from Asheville and the guy who does all the blues. Scott Ainslie. They came down and did a show for us here and the foundation paid for that. There&squo;s a lot of enrichment. We&squo;ve had the Hampstead Players come down and do a couple of programs that were at Rogers Park, but in the case if inclement weather they would have been in here. It&squo;s good to see an elementary school that still has a real auditorium. As we made our way back to the portable to sit and visit we started talking about the roots and bluegrass tradition of the area. This is the area for that and all the church singings and shape note singings. They learned to sing in those shape notes and it was all about intervals. I guess that&squo;s where the Nashville number system came in. They could hear whatever they needed to hear and they could sing in any key just by knowing the interval relationship. I don&squo;t read shape notes, but some of the old timers do and that&squo;s all they read. I&squo;ve never actually seen something written in shape notes. It&squo;s in the old Baptist and Pentecostal hymnals. I did go to a couple of those singings up in Rosman. Post Civil War 1865 and beyond each church in a region might present an arrangement of the melody with a descant over the top of it and a tenor part, most of the time in three parts. It was a real chord harmony type of thing and they would submit this to the Broadman Press and they published it in Nashville. There&squo;s a book called Sacred Heart that is actually a collection of these old songs from the Southern Appalachia region that they complied from their church records of those old shape note singings. The people would come around and do singing schools and people we get together and do that all weekend and eat and learn to sing those old shape notes. That&squo;s the best thing my grandmother could do, but I can&squo;t, I never learned it. I&squo;ve seen it in books. Did you grow up with music in the household? Oh yes. My mother played and all her family played. Mom&squo;s a great piano player. Her dad was my first guitar teacher. He bought me a tenor guitar which is like a baritone ukulele with steel strings. He taught me some two finger chords and he could about play, he played a little bit of piano. He was a fa¸ade artist. He didn&squo;t really read music, but kind of read and knew where he was going. Now, Mom really did learn to read. She took from Ms. Massinovitch, the same lady that Nina Simone took from. I took some piano from her too, but she was strict. She would beat my hands and say, &dquo;You play like a baby elephant.&dquo; But she was a very good teacher. She put the theory, the Hannon exercises, and the musicianship in my brain. Had it not been for her and my mother I would not have been able to graduate college with a music degree. I would have never have passed the piano proficiency or the theory, composition and that sort of thing. Now my dad on the other hand, he does the train whistle and he&squo;s a good singer. He&squo;s a ham. He &dquo;sangs&dquo; instead of sings, but he has a lot of feeling in what he sings or &dquo;sangs.&dquo; I get a little bit from them all I think. My uncle played saxophone in Charlotte. He had a little band that played dance gigs on the weekend. He had a pretty good 10-piece big band that played the Ellington tunes and Miller tunes. He wrote some things and we still sing some of his songs. We had music in the family. So you grew up with music at home and went on to college and got your degree. Right. Was your family encouraging of that? Oh sure. That&squo;s all I knew. I never was the kind of student like they say is great at math. I was okay with math. I was a pretty good math student until I had to start learning theorems and postulates. I thought, if I can look that up in the book, why learn it? If I can play guitar, piano, or trombone I won&squo;t do that. I think as long as musicians are using the math they don&squo;t think about the math they just do it, but if you start throwing stuff at them they won&squo;t use&ellip; L-R Madison Whitner, Jennifer Griffin, Malena Roman, Georgia Garrett and Jazmine Edwards. (photo submitted)&bsp;Application is everything. That&squo;s the way these guitars are, or any instrument, if you don&squo;t apply it. I start with these little tonette song flutes or mini-recorders and they we&squo;ll transfer and play it on the piano and I&squo;ll show them how to find the keys on the piano. They can take the melodies they learn on the flutes. It&squo;s not really a recorder because it fingers like a saxophone and that&squo;s why I use it. It&squo;s a Boehm system and it&squo;s easier. The tone holes are raised, a recorder has more range, but I figure if I can get three scales in their head, two key signatures, a major and a minor, hey&ellip; That&squo;s something. That&squo;s enough for fifth grade and then they are ready for band. I wish you could have heard them yesterday. My fifth graders did Joy to the World and We Three Kings. I&squo;ll do the Mills Brothers version of Santa Claus is Coming to town or we&squo;ll do Rudolph as a cha cha and break down the rhythm and style. They may end up taking the flutes home and some get lost. They&squo;re cheap but you learn breath control. I have to figure out where to set up these two new keyboards. I use those with the older kids and show them where middle C is and then I&squo;ll make them count up from there with the alphabet until you get to G and start over. Then eventually they can find F above middle C by themselves just counting up. The guitar kids I try to apply them and get them ready to play some concerts and things. I feel like if
you can&squo;t apply it, you won&squo;t really appreciate music. I probably fall short as a teacher in exposing them to a wealth of classical literature. I will play snippets and share with them the composers&squo; lives, but to say I spend a lot of time with music appreciation, I really don&squo;t. Seeing them 40 minutes a week is not much. How many students do you have in class? I have as many as 24, some as few as 15-16. My guitars kids, they come in the morning, I have about 10 girls, 10 boys, and a few little fourth graders that I want to see how well they start with it. One little boy came this morning, it started with three and now there&squo;s one, but he&squo;s doing well. Another little boy, if I get him here, I think will be pretty good. He seems to acclimate to it fairly quickly. It&squo;s about to get to the point where it&squo;s overwhelming now. That little band last year really was successful. The group this year, I have about five out of each class that are really playing pretty well. Then you have about five that are there and it probably helps their self-esteem. I have one little kid who comes to mind who&squo;s been angry, but comes in the morning and plays the guitar and now is kind of happy and fitting in. It enriches life as a human being. As long as they&squo;re showing up and trying, I&squo;m all for it. There are a lot of musicians in this school and they&squo;re going to do great things. A little boy Frederick plays piano, is learning guitar, and is just a talented kid. His family nurtures it. There are others like him that really apply it and work for it. Like you said, if you don&squo;t apply it, it won&squo;t be meaningful to you. I try to inspire them and make them aware that they can accomplish something through work and practice. There is a work ethic. I&squo;m not particularly anointed. I don&squo;t have special talents; I had work for everything I have which is still limited. Sometimes when you know how much you&squo;ve worked for every little bit you have, those little bits are more important. True enough. Many people that have a wealth of talent they just wander. They are so talented they can&squo;t figure out what they want. They wander through life and maybe don&squo;t apply themselves and fulfill what they could have done. It was neat to see the article on Justin Carlson. I remember his dad coming and helping me with some of those early classes we did. He didn&squo;t mention his orange guitar. That was the coolest orange guitar. I asked him he still had that, and he said he did, but it wasn&squo;t his instrument of choice. I&squo;m glad to see him doing well. I&squo;ve had so many former students that have done well. Benton Wharton is down in Charleston now and he&squo;s playing and David Reese up in Hendersonville still plays. I know BJ Cates, Alex Miller, and Anthony Marino from last year are still playing. You mentioned your &dquo;Stray Bullet Band&dquo; was something a little different. Well Marianne Carruth had asked me to do something Super Saturday so I had them together as a little band. BJ Cates came in the third grade and he&squo;d had a hard time in his other school, but he played guitar. We put him in a guidance position with me and that progressed through the fourth grade and then I started letting in a few more fourth graders join in with him. Then these boys came together through the years and made that little band. We took them out with a bass player and a drummer and the core of that band is still playing. I turned them loose because I had to start some more over here. I think I may be able to start a little band in the spring with some of these boys and girls. I don&squo;t know if I&squo;ll ever get boys and girls to play together. It&squo;s hard at that age. I may have a boy band and a girl band. The girls are already getting their name together. I think I&squo;ll be able to pick a few and plug them in during my planning time. I use my planning times like now to nurture them a little bit if I find some extra talent. I got to the point where they would get a little job every weekend, and I may have a job on the weekend. I freelance and gig, I have to feed my creative side so I can share it. That&squo;s where you get to be an adult and a person again instead of just the mentor and teacher. That&squo;s very well stated. They would book a little show and I would set up the PA and such, so I said, &dquo;This is going to be a parent&squo;s job. You&squo;re going to have to nurture this and I&squo;m going to start a new group.&dquo; I worked with them all into the beginning of this school year and they&squo;d come over from the middle school. I gave them a pretty good foundation. I think they&squo;ll be able to go with it. I tried to encourage them to buy some equipment. It takes that. It takes time to buy the equipment too. You&squo;re not just going to go out and buy everything you need at once with the cost. They were pretty smart about it. I encouraged one to buy mics and stands, one to buy a mixing board, and they had an extra amp they could plug that mixing board in it and make a little PA system. So they worked it out. Creativity will find its way with people and kindred spirits will unite. I remember being in talent shows and having bands upstage me. I&squo;d go home with my tail between my legs and say, &dquo;I&squo;ll be back. I&squo;m going to work and be better than you.&dquo; If you&squo;re able to pick it up and plug it into your heart and your mind and your efforts, then you grow. You don&squo;t learn by doing everything right the first time. Oh, no. You always want to play with people better than you if you can, or at least play with people who are as good as you. Always try to be better. That&squo;s what it&squo;s all about. You can&squo;t be perfect, but you can get some nights when you play say, &dquo;Wow, man where did that come from? It almost took me to another place.&dquo; That&squo;s what you play for, don&squo;t you think? Definitely. I&squo;m fortunate that I&squo;m able to make a living teaching music and I do play for money. I&squo;ve been fortunate to play with some bands where you play songs different every time. We had a little hippy rock and roll band with some friends. What did you call that one? Radiation Blues Banned. We started when there was a low level waste dump they were going to put in the regional compact and we went and wrote a couple of protest songs. We played Pink Floyd, Talking Heads, and the Doors covers. Marshall Ballew wrote a lot of original material for us. Who all was in the band? Marshall Ballew, Jeff Haslam, Phil Correll, Kim Henry, Greg Hils, Pattie Peake, myself, and some of the people from WNCW. We had a lot of fun doing that, but we went our own ways. Now I&squo;m playing with the drummer that played with Toy Caldwell when he left Marshall Tucker Band and went out on his own and the bass player. The bass player is playing the rhythm guitar now, because I took his bass job when he went back out on the road with Marshall Tucker Band. To learn from him has been a real experience. Then Sue Wilson, Stephanie Murdock and I still play our band called the Music Makers for a lot of ballroom dance clubs where we play swing and Latin music. Sue is so good she can make an arrangement and put two or three songs together on the fly or turn a cha cha into a waltz. She&squo;s really a great musician. Sue is the one of the organizers of the Parlor Pickin&squo; at the Coffeehouse isn&squo;t she? Yes, she&squo;s a great guitar player. But she played piano with you at the Tryon Arts & Crafts Festival, how many instruments does she play? She majored in percussion at Western Carolina and is great on guitar and piano. She&squo;s a phenomenal player. I guess I freelance. It&squo;s hard in this economy to play a lot. I guess you do it to make a little extra
change, but it&squo;s fulfilling too. I&squo;ve put a lot of money into equipment over the years. What&squo;s one of the first songs you remember learning? The first song I remember learning on a stringed instrument was Little Brown Jug by Glenn Miller, then Carolina in the Morning. We had a guy who came to our school with an electric Gibson guitar and he&squo;d paid for lessons and could play &dquo;Venus.&dquo; All the kids loved it, I came in with my little flat top and I could tell I had been disgraced and had to leave in shame. Then the music teacher told us we were going to do a program about North Carolina and sing Carolina in the Morning. She said, &dquo;The first one who can learn that song and play it is going to play it on the show.&dquo; So I went home and learned it and I had to learn some diminished chords. I learned it so Glenn didn&squo;t get to play and I had my comeback. Then we played the rock and roll stuff ZZ Top, LeGrange, Pink Floyd, Allman Brothers, Skynyrd, the Doors, The Beatles, The Stones, and The Grateful Dead. What do you think we&squo;ll see in the spring from your students? I&squo;ll probably get them out at Super Saturday and two or three times around and about. L-R John Martinez, Marquise Lipscomb, Alex Babcock, Zach Foy and Billy Mosseller. Back Robert Davis and Woody Cowan (photo submmitted)&bsp;Are they playing the same songs as the other band or are they picking different tunes? We started with Johnny B. Goode, just like the other group and then Paint it Black by the Stones. They always want to do Sweet Home Alabama because the other band did it. I really want to use some other things. I&squo;m just going to sit them down and ask them what they&squo;d like to learn to play and maybe just take it from there and see what happens. That will be motivating factor. It&squo;s hard to get ten players to play together. I&squo;m sure we&squo;ll do some shows with those that are most motivated. Ms. Rogers and I will do a pageant in March with a song for each of the 50 states. At this point our conversation wrapped up as his next class of fourth grade students arrived and the room was filled with sound. Even though it was the last day before winter break I watched Mr. Cowan lead these students through several songs to working on intervals, pitch and rhythm. I could tell they were learning, but the smiles told me they were also having fun.