Roll those Laughing Bones: Musician inspires Avon music program
AVON, Colorado – When a friend asked Jake Wolf if he would teach music at Avon Elementary, he suspected someone was playing a practical joke.”I thought, am I being punked up in here?” Wolf recalled.At the time, Wolf was on the road, drumming for a pair of Grateful Dead tribute bands. For the better part of a decade, he had toured with Shakedown Street and the Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue, among other rock bands.”I had zero teaching background whatsoever,” he said.Skeptical, Wolf stopped by the school to meet with the staff.”If you’re looking for Mr. Holland’s Opus, that’s not so much me,” he told them. “But if you want Jack Black’s ‘School of Rock,’ – that I can do.”As it turned out, Wolf was exactly what principal Melissa Rewold-Thuon had been searching for.”I wanted a real musician to inspire kids to play music,” she said. “In the past, we always had teachers who taught music, but they weren’t musicians.”For years, the music room’s instruments had been stowed in a closet, collecting dust. Wolf was about to change that with his “school of rock.”
When you call Wolf’s classroom, the voicemail message says “You’ve reached Jake Wolf at Avon Elementary’s school of rock.”Like Jack Black’s character in the movie, Wolf is an unlikely candidate for a teacher. But unlike his silver-screen counterpart – who gets in trouble for posing as a teacher, then redeems himself when his students wow audiences at a battle of the bands – Wolf actually got his teaching certification.Still, the 34-year-old Vail Valley resident was pretty nervous on his first day in front of the class in September.”So here I am in this classroom with these kids, and looking at them like they were looking at me. ‘What’s going on here? What do I do?’ And it all just kind of popped into my head.”Because the older kids were acting up, he calmed them down by having them meditate, chanting along with musical tones. He asked them which instruments they wanted to learn and told them to bring in music they liked (kids are into Michael Jackson, Wolf said).Things were going well until the kindergarten class arrived.”They come in here, and within two minutes of them getting in here, one starts to cry, like panicking,” Wolf said. “And all of the sudden, within about two minutes, I have 18 kindergartners screaming.”A nurse tried to help calm them down, but the students wouldn’t stop screaming until a Spanish-speaking teacher came in and figured out the problem (most of the kids spoke Spanish as their first language). As it turned out, the kids had been terrified by Wolf’s classroom mascot – a large doll likeness of Animal, the rocking Muppet.”They were panicking because when they saw Animal, they totally freaked out,” Wolf said. “They thought it was Chupacabra. That’s the Mexican boogie man.”With a little explanation, and a showing of the Muppets movie, the kids warmed up to Animal.They also warmed up to Wolf.
On the second day, Wolf set out to teach a lesson from the curriculum book on “call and response.” He was supposed to clap out a rhythm, and have the kids clap it back, but Wolf decided to improvise. He sang verses of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” and had the kids echo them back.”When I had 18 of those kindergartners looking up at me, singing ‘Three Little Birds,’ I just teared up,” Wolf said. “It was so powerful. That was the moment I was like, ‘Ah, I can do a lot of good with this.”Teaching music three days a week to kindergartners through fifth-graders, Wolf related everything he could to rock ‘n’ roll.He invited real musicians to play in his classroom – the singer from local reggae band Bonfire Dub, the pianist from Leftover Salmon. Just about every other week, one of Wolf’s musician friends would swing by the school for a private show.Instead of following the dry, vague directives in the curriculum handbook, Wolf infused the concepts with hands-on learning.Once, he devised a lesson plan on the spot during a trip to the Hawaiian islands, where he had been jamming with Bonfire Dub and met a local Polynesian drummer.Breaking out his phone, Wolf videotaped the drummer performing. Back in the classroom, he played the video on a large TV and had the kids mimic the rhythms with their own drums and percussion toys.”I took these ideas, these very loosely written concepts, and I was like, ‘Alright, I’ve got to make this fun,” he said.
Inside his classroom on a recent afternoon, Wolf looks every bit like a rock star. His shoulder-length hair peeks out of a black Stetson hat. A skull-design belt fastened his jeans.The pink Animal doll, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, poked out of a jumble of drums and guitars.Although the school principal describes Wolf’s teaching style as “slightly unconventional,” he actually has loads of classical training.For four years, he studied at The Hartt School music conservatory in Hartford, Conn., often playing with the funk band George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic when he wasn’t in class. He tried touring with P-Funk, but gave up after three weeks on the bus because “not much school work goes on in those things.”Unsure how to navigate the onslaught of corporate recording companies, Wolf enrolled in music industry studies at the University of Colorado-Denver. By 1998, he was playing full-time with the Grateful Dead tribute band Shakedown Street, logging up to 200 gigs a year. Forced to take a two-year break to learn to walk again after he “flew off a cliff” while mountain biking by State Bridge, Wolf resumed his rocking lifestyle in 2005. He played with Colorado bands Purple Buddha and Harmonious Junk before going back on the road with Shakedown Street and several other regional acts.Though he had been wary of teaching, Wolf said the school gig has been a blessing.”I’m here, strictly because I want to be here,” he said. “I felt like it was time to give back.”
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