Musical Explorers: Savannah Music Festival's Youngest Audience

by Kerry Dexter /
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Mar 21, 2016 / 0 comments

Each year in the spring, the Savannah Music Festival celebrates the diversity that has made this city on Georgia's coast a crossroads of culture since people first settled the area centuries ago. This year as the festival unfolds March 24 through April 9, artists include Cajun band Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, jazz/swing vocalist Catherine Russell, bluegrass greats Blue Highway, kora master Ballake Sissoko, early music specialists The Tallis Scholars, country and bluegrass award winners Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White, classical violinist Daniel Hope, and dozens of others.

Many of the most highly anticipated events of the festival feature headline artists, and several come when world renowned artists appear alongside rising stars, too.

Twelve high school bands from all across the country are chosen to come to Savannah during the festival for Swing Central Jazz, their opportunity to work with top mentors and appear in concert. Sixteen of the world's most talented young string players come to Savannah too, for The Acoustic Music Seminar. For this, they bring their own projects to workshop for a week and to share in concert.

All of this, from headline concerts to programs for young musicians, is part the Savannah Music Festival's educational aspect. There is a local and regional part to the festival's educational mission too, one that serves the very youngest members of the community, including those who may not have heard musicians play live before. It takes place in Savannah area kindergarten through second grade classrooms, and is called Musical Explorers.

 Musical Explorers: Savannah Music Festival's Youngest Audience

"This was developed in partnership with Carnegie Hall's Weil Music Institute," the festival's education director Jenny Woodruff says. The idea there, she explains, is that children live in the midst of musical traditions from all across the world right on their doorsteps and that's the jumping off point for the Musical Explorers program in New York. Music on the doorstep is the focus in Savannah, too, "but what we did," Woodruff says, "is adapt it to southern indigenous stuff."

For the first year of the Savannah program, the program's first choice was the Mackintosh County Shouters. What they do, Woodruff points out, is "ring shout -- it's the oldest surviving African American communal tradition in the United States, and they have been practicing ring shout for generations, for hundreds and hundreds of years it's passed down through family members. So that was our first choice."


"Then we wanted to look at genres that we have here in Savannah or around Savannah, so jazz, bluegrass, opera, blues, African American spirituals," Woodruff continues. "We have a lot of great singers around us, so some of it was based on choosing artists we know and who we knew we could make a great curriculum around." Those genres were the focus in the first year of the program. They followed the same idea for the second year of the program that is now underway, drawing in artists who work in soul, Irish music, the music of Mali, musical theater, Cajun music, and country music.

It is personal connections with the artists that help engage the children (and their teachers) with the music, and the musical connections translate across curricula in areas including geography, history, and language learning, as well as music itself. Teachers attend training where the they learn about the music and the program and get to hear the artists perform live. They receive a CD of music to use with their students and a one-hundred page curriculum guide. Then in the classrooms, "we start with three artists in the fall, who the kids 'meet' through the stories and the history and all that goes along with that," Woodruff says. "The teachers teach songs and musical traditions and vocabulary, and then in December the teachers get to take their classes to a concert. They get to see all the music they have been learning about -- live!" Then the process repeats in the spring with different artists.

During the first year, "we were really blown away at our fall concerts to see how some of the music that we thought was little bit more esoteric and we didn't know how the kids were going to do with it, it was our first year -- they knew every word. They knew every word, they knew all the vocabulary words, they knew the music." There was more to it than that. Woodruff continues: "We have a page from each unit where it is a postcard from each artist telling the kids a little bit about where the artist is from and how excited they are to see them at the concert, so once the kids get to the concert itself, the artists are these celebrities that they can't believe they are seeing in person!"


These are young children, most of them five to seven years of age. "They are sponges at that age," Woodruff points out. "The sky is the limit for what they can learn."

This is a legacy of the Savannah Music Festival that goes far beyond the weeks in spring when its world renowned concerts, powerful as they are, are taking place. "I'm really excited about Musical Explorers and where it's going," Jenny Woodruff says, "and that we have almost every school in the county participating. I just think it's going to become a Savannah institution - kids are going to grow up in Savannah having done it and it's going to become kind of a hallmark of being a kid in Savannah."

Perhaps, decades along, some of these young musical explorers may come back to play the stages at the Savannah Music Festival, too.


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Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site, Music Road.