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For those about to rock: Woodmont students salute musical calling

Jimmy Fincher, an eighth-grader at Woodmont School, practices on his electric guitar. Fincher is one of several in the class who bring their own instrument. - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Jimmy Fincher, an eighth-grader at Woodmont School, practices on his electric guitar. Fincher is one of several in the class who bring their own instrument.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

At the end of the class, seventh-grader Terrin Respa got a few precious moments alone with his snare drum. He set it up at the back of the classroom at the bottom of a small staircase, to be separate from the cacophony of his classmates as they jammed on electric and acoustic guitars and keyboards.

He lets the sticks dribble on the drum head, tapping out a beat, and explains that he has been drumming since he was a young boy. He enjoys the opportunity to do a little drumming at school.

“It helps motivate me to come to school,” he said of his music class.

Woodmont School teacher Rhonda Kent has shaped an interesting music program over the past several years. It’s more of a studio class — where students work on their project and the teacher offers guidance and assistance — as opposed to a traditional band or chorus ensemble. Her seventh- and eighth-grade students pick guitar or piano, read music or guitar tablature, and can learn songs that suit their musical tastes.

A sample of songs students from a recent class: “Just Dance,” by Lady Gaga, “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel and “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath.

The class was born out of the need to reach teenagers at Woodmont as the school transitioned into a combined elementary and middle school over the past two years. It’s also a response to the school’s size and inability to support a full band program. It gives the chance to learn an instrument for students who may not have access to one or support at home.

“This is a group of kids who in a different environment would not get signed up for a band or music program,” Kent said. “It gives them an opportunity they never thought of or had.”

Seventh-graders Kiana Nakayan and Audrey LaJoie were paired up on a keyboard learning to play “Canon in D” as a duet. LaJoie explained that she picked the song after learning it in private piano lessons. She was teaching Nakayan how to read the sheet music, and the two were coping with learning to play a song with three hands and two separate brains at work.

“It’s harder,” LaJoie said. “You have to pretend you have three hands.”

Kent provides aid for students picking up an instrument for the first time. Some of the keyboards have tape on each key indicating notes. She also gives out chord charts for finger placement. Some students receive instruction from their classmates.

Kent’s class is split up into two sides. On one is an open area where students sit on buckets practicing guitar. Some bring their own electric guitars and amps from home, while others use one of the acoustic guitars bought with donations from a group of generous parents. The other side of the classroom features a number of electric keyboards arranged in an oval. Students were playing out loud, but each keyboard came equipped with headphones.

Kent said that the guitar students are usually higher energy kids and can be left to their own to learn their songs. The piano students tend to be quieter. Kent said that some students struggle with reading sheet music, but the ones who don’t usually excel at math and reading. Some students, she has observed, are simply better at learning by ear.

On the guitar side, eighth-graders Jimmy Fincher and Bryson Tucker were warming up their electric guitars. After they tuned up, they played a traditional blues lick together. At one point Fincher, who takes private lessons, started tinkering with an AC/DC riff.

Federal Way Public Schools spokeswoman Debra Stenberg said that the district encourages “instructional differentiation,” which caters learning to individual students’ needs.

“This is responsive to her students’ needs and strengths at this age. They want time to investigate, go deeper, refine, but not necessarily have someone watching over their shoulder at every moment,” said Jamie Schneider, the music coordinator at Meredith Hill Elementary School.

Totem Middle School band director Kathy Green said her band students often practice on their own and in groups in advance of a performance or test. Some classes in the district use Smart Music, which is software that allows students to receive assignments, practice and be evaluated by a computer.

Seventh-grader Terrin Respa only had a few minutes with his drum before Kent called the class to gather in the guitar area so that a couple of the electric guitarists could demonstrate their stuff. Seventh-grader Evan Lechenby played a Johnny Cash song, and classmate Joe Spallino, whose father is a professional musician, played “The National Anthem.” After fiddling with his amp settings for a minute, Spallino was channelling the fuzzy, distorted version of that song done by another Seattle-area guitar god.

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