By Jaime Aron
Among the many things that make New Orleans special, music perhaps tops the list. Anyone flying into or out of the new airport terminal is even entertained by live performers on a stage above a bar.
So it only made sense that the College Football Playoff Foundation found a way to incorporate student musicians and their teachers into the events surrounding the CFP championship game.
The first-of-its-kind event was held Friday at the headquarters of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, featuring a performance by a 16-piece band comprised of students from Ben Franklin Elementary Mathematics & Science School and from the Mary D. Coghill Elementary School.
“That was awesome,” said Edwin Harrison, band director at Coghill. “The kids had lots of fun, and that’s what is important. They were exposed to different styles and they got to see this building, which they’ve never seen before even though they live right here in New Orleans.”
The original plan was for a Battle of the Bands event featuring multiple schools. Instead of competing, they ended up collaborating.
The event began with a singer, a drummer and two keyboard players from Ben Franklin performing two original songs, then receiving further instruction from two Little Kids Rock educators.
“They’ve heard everything that I’ve been saying, but to hear it from other professionals coming from different city and with the lights, cameras, the bells and whistles, all of that was very stimulating for them,” said Herman LeBeaux, music instructor at Franklin.
Next, the Coghill crew took the stage playing a clarinet and multiple saxophones, trumpets, trombones and tubas. The Franklin drummer joined as Coghill performed two tunes, followed by lessons from two other Little Kids Rock educators.
During a break, all the students headed into the hall for drinks and a surprise – matching T-shirts that were tie-dyed in the green-apple color of the CFP Foundation’s Extra Yard for Teachers program. They returned to the room wearing the shirts, looking like a unit. That’s when they learned they would be performing together one of the songs brought by the Franklin band. It was a breezy, jazzy number they dubbed “As Best As I Can,” based on “A Better Man” by local artist Lenny Green. While it was brand new to the Coghill performers, the Franklin kids had only learned it in the last few days.
Once it was time to practice, they broke into three ensemble groups, each with an instructor or two. They came back together for a first run-through that sounded good, but also need some work.
As a unit, they came up with a better closing flourish. They practiced that, and other pieces of the song.
Finally, it was time for the big finish.
“By the end, they created sort of a super band,” said Sonya Robinson, co-director of Artist Corps. “That’s exactly what we love to see. It’s amazing for students to learn through music what means to be an ensemble and work together.”
That also was the key takeaway for Jonathan Bloom Sr., the other co-director of Artist Corps.
“I tell kids all the time, `Even as professional musicians, you make mistakes on the bandstand. The biggest thing is, how do you adjust?’” Bloom said. “So to watch these kids, in 10 or 15 minutes to make adjustments, and that was that. … That’s bigger than music because as a society you have to make adjustments all the time.”
The CFP Foundation, the charitable arm of the playoff system, is dedicated to supporting and celebrating K-12 educators. While its work goes on year-round, the organization ramps up activities in the host city before, during and even after the game.
Months ago, Janice Polizzotto – chief development officer of Little Kids Rock – met an official with the CFP, which in turn led to a meeting with Foundation officials. They agreed that the championship weekend was a perfect time to shine a spotlight on music educators. It’s a beautiful irony that added exposure for a sometimes-overlooked area of education came in a city where music – and the teaching of music – is actually cherished.
“We’re trying to get more music to more students to help them improve their lives and be happier and better and well adjusted,” said Scott Burstein, director of teaching and learning for Little Kids Rock. “Today, we probably learned as much from them as they did from us.”