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Musician T.J. Wheeler teaches the blues to Grant students

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 | 3:41 p.m. CDT; updated 6:36 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Megan Matchell, left, and Shalyn Barclay get ready to freestyle sing over a song sung by the other Blues Corps students under T.J. Wheeler's direction at Grant Elementary School. Wheeler is the Artist in Residence at Grant for the third year in a row and is leading the Blues Corps in writing two original songs they will perform at this weekend's Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival.

COLUMBIA — Blues musician T.J. Wheeler is singing the blues this week with Grant Elementary students for the third consecutive year and helping them prepare for a performance at the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival at the same time.

Wheeler’s program — Hope, Heroes and the Blues — is an educational program that has been around for 20 years and has found its way to 350,000 students and five continents. Wheeler told the students stories about different blues musicians, blues songs and the African-American origins of blues and jazz music. Each grade level met with Wheeler twice during the week for 30 minutes.

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The students sang and danced to “The Blues is a Healer,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Short Bread” along with Wheeler, but put their own bluesy spins on the songs. With each song a new instrument was introduced to the class. The instruments included a guitar, talking drums, a ukulele and a banjo, among others; third-grader Gwyneth Caldwell enjoyed yet another instrument that Wheeler played.

“I like how he plays the diddley bow because of the way it looks like a guitar’s neck,” Gwyneth said. “I like the sound of it, and it’s kind of like a guitar, and a guitar is my favorite instrument.”

Wheeler had students participate in discussions of the history of blues and how its roots go all the way back to Africa. He said they need to know about the past if they want to build a better future.

“I hope that when kids grow older and are tempted by certain elements of society, such as scapegoating one's frustrations into racism or other forms of prejudice, or self-destructive behavior such as drug abuse, that a strong foundation in music and the arts gives them an alternative to that,” Wheeler said. “Values and issues of character are what my program tries to embody.”

The students appreciated the time with Wheeler. Some made welcome-back cards, while others just enjoyed learning new songs. Third-grader Charlie Monroe, who has been playing the piano since kindergarten, likes Wheeler because of his enthusiasm for music and the blues.

“I like the blues because when you're sad it cheers you up and kind of expresses your happiness,” Charlie said. “It keeps me playing my instrument.”

Besides teaching the different grade levels, Wheeler also helps the Blues Corps put on a production for the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ festival. The Blues Corps is made up of 29 volunteer students, and they work with Wheeler an hour a day for a week. Music specialist and Blues Corps facilitator Pam Sission believes this is a good program for the kids.

“Kids definitely want to be a part of this,” Sisson said. “It’s a big commitment for them, and they get to work with T.J.”

The Blues Corps and Wheeler come up with a theme, a title and lyrics for their song.  Then they rehearse for the upcoming performance. Students such as Justin Lannin are excited for the performance. The Blues Corps is scheduled to perform at 11 a.m. Saturday in Flat Branch Park.

“I’m excited because we get to go up on stage,” Justin said. “I get nervous, but after I start singing it’s gone.”

Blues Corps performer Claire Dong said she thinks it's fun being a part of the group and loves to perform and sing. She also likes working with Wheeler and has learned a lot from him.

“When you think about the things you encounter that you might not like, you sing to make you happy,” Claire said.  “I’ve learned that you have to sing the blues to lose the blues. That’s what T.J says.”


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