Ecker Hill Middle School students learn blues licks during Blues in the School program |

Ecker Hill Middle School students learn blues licks during Blues in the School program

Tony Holiday, right, teaches sixth-grade student Tavish Handy-Polinsky how to play the harmonica during the Blues in the Schools program last week.

Last week, a humming noise filled the music room at Ecker Hill Middle School. No other sounds were heard besides the high and low murmur from students blowing into their harmonicas.

The sixth-grade students each received their own harmonica and learned how to play it during a Blues in the Schools program last week. The program was organized by Kelly Wallis, the band instructor at Ecker Hill, and put on by representatives from the Utah Blues Society.

Wallis and Laura Starley, a language arts teacher at Ecker Hill, received a $1,500 grant from the Park City Education Foundation to run the program. The band department also pitched in some funds, Wallis said.

The all-day event included an assembly about where and why blues music started, lessons on how to play blues licks on the harmonica and performances from two blues musicians in Utah, James Majors and Tony Holiday of Tony Holiday and The Velvetones.

The novel "Echo," by Pam Muñoz Ryan, which the students are reading this year, was weaved throughout the program. The book follows the story of three characters around the world during World War II who are connected with a harmonica.

Starley said that since the harmonica is a major part of the novel, she thought that giving the instruments to the students would help them connect to the characters. "When they are able to play music, it relates back to what is happening in the book," she said. "They seem to make a quicker connection back to what happened when they also have a kinesthetic memory."

The kids even practiced playing a song that is performed in the book, "America the Beautiful."

Sixth-graders Brooke Roach, left, and Bella Recesso try out different sounds on the harmonica during a lesson. The entire grade participated in the Blues in the School program, in which students learned about the history of blues music and practiced the basics of playing a harmonica. (Carolyn Webber/Park Record)

She hopes that the students walked away with a better understanding of the historical context of the music, since many of them might not have been exposed to blues without the program. Blues originated from African slaves working in cotton fields in the U.S. who would play music at night as a way to escape their difficulties.

"The harmonica was a symbol of hope to many people," she said. "Sometimes we need something to relax us and take our minds off of our problems."

This is the second year that the students are reading the book as an entire grade. While reading it last year, Barb Jerome, an art teacher at Ecker Hill, heard about the Blues in the School program and told Wallis.

Jerome and Wallis reached out to Tripp Hopkins, a board member of the Utah Blues Society and an old friend of the two teachers. He agreed to bring the program to the school, and the teachers found a way to pay for the harmonicas so that the students could keep them after the event.

Hopkins said that the event seemed to be successful. He hopes that the students walked away with some kind of interest in music, regardless if it is blues or not.

But, it was still nice to hear the students say thank you, or even find a group of students in a room playing the harmonica together after, he said.

"When you see stuff like that, you know that you are making a difference," he said.

Tony Holiday, left, plays the harmonica as James Major jams on the guitar during an assembly to kick off the Blues in the School program at Ecker Hill Middle School last week. Holiday plays in the local band Tony Holiday and The Velvetones. Major is the Utah Blues Society coordinator for the program. (Carolyn Webber/Park Record)

Wallis said that the goal of the program for him was for the students to gain a deeper understanding of the novel and the historical context it presents. As a music teacher, he is excited to see the kids get a harmonica and learn how to play it.

"I think that will be the most memorable experience for the kids," he said. "They can see how they can be expressive on an instrument right out of the box. That way they can just pick it up and play it. They don't play any wrong notes, there is no intimidation. Anything they play, it will sound good."

He hopes to continue the program next year because it integrates various subjects into one program and helps the students learn a greater lesson.

"They are all conversing about the book and they're all experiencing music," Wallis said. "We are trying to create a larger, kinder community by having kids dialoguing about things. They are all reading the same book, they are all working toward the same goal and they are all hopefully getting the same understanding."

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