Feature story: Master class

Led by an acclaimed folk/jazz singer, teachers learn ways to give kids insight into music

Sporting brightly colored feathers in their hair, 22 teachers from the Palo Alto Unified School District are leaping, clapping, hopping and making bird sounds.

After improvising some zany steps and noises, the teachers — from preschool, kindergarten, elementary and middle schools — energetically sing "Shiri Yakanaka" (Beautiful Bird) in the language of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, which few are likely to have heard before. Meanwhile, smaller groups squawk, chirrup and flap as they impersonate different African birds, including the yellow-bellied sunbird and the blue-eared starling. Smiles are bouncing about almost as vigorously as the feathers.

Learning a song and dance from Zimbabwe is part of an afternoon of professional development with Imani Gonzalez, the Washington, D.C., world folk and jazz singer leading the workshop. Held at Palo Alto High School, the program is sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of Stanford Lively Arts' innovative education program.

Today's workshop, "Exploring World Cultures through Music," gives teachers a visual, musical and kinetic experience of three distinct African groups: the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Ga of Ghana, and the Shona of Zimbabwe.

It also gives teachers — and, in turn, their students — greater insight into the styles and artists that they and their students will encounter at Lively Arts performances. Throughout the season, five artists performing at Lively Arts will also give free student matinees, which include Big Band jazz, Tobias Wolff stories brought to life by actors, and Mexican-American dance.

The collaboration between Lively Arts and the Kennedy Center began last year; last season's highlights included Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite with puppets.

Imani Gonzalez's workshop is in preparation for a performance later this month by the 26-member Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa. The choir sings a mix of regional folk songs, traditional hymns, international pop hits and gospel, in six languages including Zulu — all the while clapping, swaying and dancing.

Currently on a tour of the U.S., the Soweto Gospel Choir has been described by the New York Times as "meticulous and unstoppable ... spirited and spectacular." In its six years of existence, the Grammy-winning group has performed with such luminaries as Diana Ross, Celine Dion, Annie Lennox, Bono, Queen and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and sung for Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Oprah Winfrey.

The Stanford performance is expected to consist mostly of pieces from the choir's 2008 recording "African Spirit," which the group describes in a statement as "more of a spiritual journey than just a show... reflected mainly in love songs, for other human beings, for God, and for the world in general."

In her workshops, Imani Gonzalez explains African tribal customs and artifacts accompanied by visual aids. But the experiential learning requires the teacher participants to put their senses, imagination and intelligence to work, much the same way they expect their students to do. The hope is that learning physically — through group improvisation, song and movement — can have an impact far beyond theoretical learning by shifting perspectives and bringing deeper insights about the material.

Gonzalez wastes no time in introducing the teachers to some entirely different ways of looking at the world. Choosing one of several drums she has brought to accompany her, she uses her strong clear voice, rhythmic expressiveness and personal warmth to encourage teachers to drop their reserve and "be open and explore the way music ties all cultures together."

Lisa Suyemoto, a kindergarten-first grade teacher at Ohlone Elementary School taking part in the workshop, said the Soweto performance offers "an opportunity to expose kids to a lot of incredible things."

Of the workshop, she said: "One thing that's particularly helpful is really knowing what we're going to be seeing prior to going. It helps us to prepare, gives us some great ideas about things that we can try in our classrooms, ways to cue (the students) and get them engaged in what they'll see: what to listen for, what to look for, and ways they can participate."

Even when performances are sophisticated and demanding for young audiences, such as a modern dance group, Suyemoto said that exercises inspired by the workshops and done at school have helped students to "really appreciate how performers were moving, how they move to the music, move in unison or in response."

Despite Suyemoto's students' young age, she added that she and other teachers from Ohlone found them to be "incredibly well behaved and focused" at the performances.

Tools as well as inspiration are abundantly provided today, as Imani Gonzalez models the ideal classroom teacher: firm, clear, structured in approach while leaving plenty of room for imagination and humor. Soon everyone is listening raptly to stories of gods and goddesses, belting out invocations to Elegba the boy trickster, and singing a ceremonial naming song by which Ga mothers traditionally ask for a good mind, good health and good heart for their child:

Ta ta tei,

Ya E Ya E Ya O

Afia Ya Aba

Ya Ya Awishio.

Gonzalez' roadmap for learning a new song is as follows: careful listening to learn the form, call and response to memorize the melody, phonetic sounding out of lyrics, phrasing to grasp the rhythmic dynamic, and repetition to fix the whole song in memory.

During comments at the end of the afternoon, some teachers point out that these steps can facilitate many valuable processes, such as learning, skill-building, community cohesion, discovering one's own learning style, finding positive links to the school curriculum, and gaining a personal connection to the music.

Supplementary materials — including a book, "Iyipo Aye: The Circle of Life," written by Imani Gonzalez, and an accompanying CD containing the songs learned today — help reinforce every aspect of the lessons and make it more likely that vital connections will be made later in the classroom.

As they cool down after the workshop, four teachers from Barron Park Elementary are already discussing how they will use what they've learned to enhance activities for several grades and through various levels of the curriculum. Today's workshop ties into a team-building activity, "Constellation," that involves the whole school, and that will include an African dance (this year from the Congo), African folk stories and mask-making activities.

"We don't want to just go and see a wonderful performance and then let it sit there," said Joan Barksdale, a first-grade teacher at Barron Park Elementary. "We want to do more of the culture, to go more in depth. We'll use all of this."

What: The Soweto Gospel Choir from South Africa performs, presented by Stanford Lively Arts.

Where: Memorial Church, Stanford University

When: The public performance is Tuesday, Oct. 7, at 8 p.m. (The student matinee is Oct. 8 at 10:30 a.m.)

Cost: General-admission tickets are $44; Stanford students pay $22. (Tickets to the student matinee will be sold at the door for children ages 5 and up accompanied by a guardian. The price is $7 per person.)

Info: Go to or call 650-725-ARTS.

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Like this comment
Posted by Another Sideshow
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2008 at 4:54 pm

"Learning a song and dance from Zimbabwe is part of an afternoon of professional development"

Exactly how much professional development time is allotted to the teachers each year? My guess is less than 20 hours. So 22 teachers spent a very sizable portion of their total professional development on this?

Is this the best use of their time? Aren't there more pressing matters like developing better math instruction / reading comprehension?

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure it was great and a wonderful experience. Just should not have been done on teacher time when there is so much more which needs improvement. Hopping around and making bird noises. Great.

Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia Sanders
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 7, 2008 at 10:41 pm

The teachers who attended the Lively Arts Master Class did so on their own time. We all attend professional development required by the district, primarily in math, science, writing and reading. There are a variety of opportunities, such as the one described in the article, for teachers to continue our education in other areas such as performing and visual arts, P.E., and areas of social justice. Many teachers attend these extra trainings to improve our craft and to provide learning opportunities in all curricular areas. The state of California requires instruction in reading, writing, math, science, physical education, visual arts and performing arts.

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