“There are only two kinds of music,” American music icon Duke Ellington once decreed. “Good and bad.”
Eric Songer, music teacher at Chaska Middle School West, subscribes to the same philosophy. Coming down firmly on the side of good music, he’s devoted to exposing students to good music wherever it can be found: genres ranging from classical to jazz, to American pop, bluegrass, Mexican mariachi, African and other “world” musics, garage rock, and even hip-hop and techno.
In an age of budget woes, school music programs have become an endangered species across the United States. But they are thriving at Chaska West, where about 400 kids participate in after school music groups, in addition to the music classes that are part of the standard curriculum.
A Wisconsin native, Songer took up the trombone in fifth grade, later adding guitar. He earned a music education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, which is renowned for its jazz program. He then attended the University of St. Thomas, earning an MA in curriculum and instruction. His wife, Heidi, a pianist and singer, also teaches music individually and through Chaska Community Education.
When Songer arrived at Chaska Middle School West in 1997, “they already had a wonderful program from K to 12,” he says. “I’ve added some nontraditional aspects to the middle school offerings, beginning with jazz and marching band. From there, things started steamrolling.”
Along the way, Songer added a “School of Rock” class, followed by other new offerings—“garage band” class, a music technology class, and student ensembles in bluegrass, mariachi, “movie Band” (film soundtrack music), techno-dance and “Stomp,” modeled after the percussion group of the same name. Ensembles give kids a chance to stay involved as they move into high school.
The most recent addition has been a more traditional summer band program for the middle school students. Some of the groups eventually become independent, continuing to play together after members enter high school, Songer says, adding “It's cool to watch them grow to the point they don't need you anymore.”
Popularity isn’t the only reason the school has been able to sustain a thriving music program. To make it all possible, budget-wise, the school district took the step of moving all middle school activities to the community education department, and setting up a fee system.
“Two cool things are that they offer scholarships to kids who need financial assistance, and that we get to use the community education facilities here in the district,” says Songer who, along with two colleagues, has successfully written grants to fund equipment purchases.
Songer points out that some, more traditionally oriented music teachers may consider his methods “Weird — ‘You’re teaching rock and roll.’ But we’re trying to give kids a 21st century education. This helps us connect with them.”
Still, Songer is a traditionalist in some ways. “I've been brought up with the idea that a strong foundation for any learning starts in classical technique,” he says. “You do need to learn note-reading, learn theory, learn rhythms; no matter what kind of music you play it will really help you out. I've worked with guitar players who think they don't need to know how to read notes and rhythms; I need to knock down that wall.”
He also gives students a historical perspective on music dating back to the Renaissance era and continuing forward. “We also spend some time on the jazz era and rock era, and learn about ‘world’ music,” he says. “We do as much as we can with the time we have.”
Before he became the father of two children, Songer spent some of his off-hours playing in local rock bands and a brass quartet; he still plays in three big bands and at worship services at a church in Mound.
Songer’s efforts have not gone recognized; several years ago, he was named the District 112 Foundation’s Teacher of the Year. Recently, he was invited to make a presentation at the Minnesota Music Educator's annual convention.
Most importantly, students and parents appreciate his contributions.
Ninth-grader Phillip Ireland plays banjo in the bluegrass ensemble organized by Songer. “What I like about his approach is that he knows what he’s doing, and he’s very organized. When we’re rehearsing, if we do something wrong, he'll stop and tell us. He also praises us.”