COLUMBIA — Sound and energy bounced off the walls in the music trailer at West Boulevard Elementary School. Singing and playing his guitar or banjo, blues musician T.J. Wheeler led the children. But they were freestyling for sure — on egg shakers, washboards, tambourines and a single wash-bucket bass.
Wheeler is in his fourth annual residency in Columbia Public Schools, timed to coincide with the Roots 'N' Blues 'N' BBQ Festival. In the past, he had worked with students at Grant Elementary School, but this this year the blues residency was expanded to include West Boulevard.
The theme at West Boulevard is "The River Runs with the Blues."
“A river is never the same river twice. Every time you step into a river, you are stepping into a new river. It is always changing,” Wheeler said after class. “It’s the same with this music. It’s always heading somewhere. It’s always got a purpose.”
Rachel Blomquist, music teacher at West Boulevard, said some classes are collaborating to embrace the rivers theme. A mural is being created on large sheets of plywood and will be taken to the festival; its inspiration is a stream that flows through an outdoor classroom at the school. Fifth-graders are writing poetry about rivers and the blues.
In addition to working with classes, Wheeler is preparing students from both schools to perform as part of the blues festival Oct. 1 to 2. The Blues Corps groups will perform at 11 a.m. Oct. 2 at Flat Branch Park.
On Friday morning, Wheeler will meet with elementary school music and art teachers from throughout the district. The goal is to further expand his blues residency. At schools across the country, Wheeler has championed integrating the blues into other facets of education, such as art and social studies, and wants to show teachers the importance of the blues.
“Without the advantage of the kids being there, I am going to try to engage the teachers and get them on some of the instruments,” Wheeler said. “Try to bring out the kid in some of them, and show them the importance of using music.”
When Wheeler worked with the kids, he encouraged involvement. "Who wants to freestyle?" he asked, calling on students to come to the microphone and solo. After every song, participants and listeners applauded.
“One thing we don’t condone in the classes is somebody putting one student down for trying something new, for being brave enough.” Wheeler said. “All of our classes are safe places.”
Blomquist saw a different side of some of her students. “It’s been fun to watch some of the kids get to be a star that don’t necessarily always get to be,” she said.
Wheeler spent most of the class time singing and making music with the kids. Between songs, he sometimes talked about connections between the blues and African-American history.
"I use the analogy of the musical tree," he said after class. "The blues is kind of like the trunk of the tree, with roots that go even deeper into the work and field songs and eventually all the way back to Africa."
At Grant the theme is "Hope, Heroes and the Blues," Wheeler's signature program.
He credited Grant for the inclusion of West Boulevard this year: "I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Grant and their caring about me being able to reach the most diversified amount of students that I possibly could.”