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Music teacher brings world beat to online learning amid COVID-19 pandemic
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Music teacher brings world beat to online learning amid COVID-19 pandemic

From the School Spotlight: Adventures in learning, inside and outside the classroom series
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Teacher and musician John Becker believes so strongly in bringing performing artists to his students he wasn’t going to let the COVID-19 pandemic stop him.

So he applied for a grant knowing a “world drumming” experience might be online this year. Since it looks like that won’t happen until the musicians can be videotaped outdoors this spring, Becker decided to give students a special online lesson that included some hip hop dancing. The students were asked to grab a makeshift drum and play along or dance or do both as they watched a video Wednesday.

Sauk Trail Elementary School fourth-grader Olive Ballard grabbed a box, and her brother, kindergartner Lorne Ballard, used a plastic crate as they drummed first with their hands and then with rhythm sticks supplied by the Middleton-Cross Plains School District earlier in the school year.

“It was very interesting,” Olive said of the video performance combining music and dance. “I thought it was very catchy. It was excellent teamwork.”

Lorne said he particularly liked the dancing.

“I liked trying the drumming,” said Owen Janecky, a second-grader at Sauk Trail. “We actually have a little drum here. I just grabbed it.”

Becker teaches music at Sauk Trail in addition to three classes at Sunset Ridge Elementary School and four other online classrooms in the district.

Past activities organized by Becker have included jazz concerts and salsa nights, and families came and danced.

Even though Sauk Trail has a hybrid format so that students spend time in the classroom and learning in an online format, Becker knew he couldn’t gather a large group together this year.

The students were watching and listening to a video of Laurie Lang Croasdale on bass, Chris Wagoner on violin, Joey B. Banks on drums, Paul Hastil on keyboard and Aaron Stettner, a junior at Middleton High School, on trombone. The musicians had been videotaped performing on the playground last year when a jazz concert could not be presented in person because of the pandemic. Instead, most of it was shown this fall, but the song the students heard online last week was not included.

As part of last week’s lesson, Becker included instruction on Afro-Cuban drumming with Eli Rameker, a junior at West High School, dancing. It was a prelude to what will be taped this spring on the playground. Becker said some students may be able to watch that performance in person but most will experience it online.

Becker was on a corner of the screen and afterward, the students were asked to create a video of themselves as an assignment.

The students will be able to continue learning an Afro-Cuban hand-drum pattern on their own after participating in the lesson, and Becker hopes it will all tie into the performance this spring.

For the spring performance, Becker received a $600 grant from the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Education Foundation. It will feature Cuban, African and Brazilian music. The performers will include Lang Croasdale on bass, Wagoner on violin, Chris Sandoval on drums and Becca May Grant on piano. In addition, Becker will play percussion, drums and maybe a little piano, too. One of the songs the group will be performing as a calypso is an original song of Becker’s called “Fiesta del Caribe.” He also will incorporate a simple dance step for students to learn.

Becker, who taught percussion at UW-Whitewater for five years, has performed in jazz, orchestral and world music groups. He is a composer and has recorded two albums of original music. He plays any percussion, drum set, hand drum, jazz piano, vibraphone and some accordion.

“Part of what does make this grant project unique from other similar projects ... is that I am able to freely ‘wear two hats,’ as one of the professional musicians (who also arranges the music to make it kid-friendly) and as the students’ general music teacher,” Becker said. “I am not just a teacher bringing in these musicians. I am one of them.”

The Ballards are a musical family. Olive plays piano and cello and sings, and Lorne plays the piano. Their mother, Cecilie Ballard, said she likes how Becker incorporates music that is appropriate for the school, which has a bilingual curriculum.

“He makes it so fun and I don’t think they are realizing all the learning that is going on,” said Ballard, a vocalist who has been invited to the school by Becker as a guest musician. “It’s part of what makes John Becker special. He makes music engaging and exciting for kids.”


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