Jumat, 13 Mei 2016

Guitar scholarship strikes chord with teacher's legacy - Chicago Tribune

Chad Clifford gently strummed his guitar while asking a group of fifth-grade students for one last question. Several kids' arms shot into the air from the guitars they were learning to play.

The students all had the same question.

"Would you please play one more song?" one girl asked.

Clifford, a singer-songwriter who owns Front Porch Music in Valparaiso, smiled and began singing "In My Life," by the Beatles.

"There are places I remember…" Clifford sang as the kids sat perfectly still.

While listening from the back of the classroom, I wondered how many of the kids would remember the place they first learned how to play guitar – Cooks Corners Elementary School in Valparaiso.

Clifford was invited to the school on behalf of the Gary Webster Young Musicians Scholarship program. Webster was a beloved teacher at that school until his death from melanoma cancer Oct. 24, 2014. He was 62.

"He reluctantly stopped teaching," said his brother, Cory Webster. Officially a leave of absence, he said, Gary Webster died about a month later."

More than 1,000 students, parents and educators attended his memorial service at Valparaiso High School. He helped educate thousands of appreciative students, including Clifford, who also sings with the local band, the Crawpuppies.

"This scholarship program honors my grade school mentor," Clifford told me. "He encouraged me to follow my musical dreams. Now I can encourage these young students, too."

After Webster's death, his family honored his memory in several ways. There is a memorial bench and faceplate at Valplayso, where he volunteered to work just weeks before he died. And similar memorial benches at Cooks Corners, where Webster taught for the last half of his 40-year career.

"Gary had a tremendous love for music and the arts," Cory Webster said. "He never missed a musical program, and he incorporated music into his teaching style."

To create a tangible legacy, Webster's family established the scholarship program with the Porter County Community Foundation and Valparaiso Schools. Funded by proceeds from Webster's estate, his family purchased 24 guitars for the school's music program and invited Clifford and the school's music teacher, Karen Zappia, to host the guitar lesson program.

On the day I visited, Zappia sat in the front row of the classroom, helping kids learn how to strum a guitar and which chords to play. The school's principal, Elaina Miller, also showed support by joining the class.

"It's a wonderful program and we're happy to host it here," she told me.

Students learned simple guitar essentials, such as how to hold a guitar, string notes, finger placement and simple chords. After the classes, they could apply for two scholarships for free guitar lessons at Front Porch Music, lasting several months.

The application included these questions: Why do you want to take guitar lessons? What does music mean to you? Will you be committed to practicing the skills taught to you in your lessons?

"The guitar is an amazing instrument," Clifford told students. "You can play it the rest of your life."

Gary Webster would have loved the idea of using music to educate kids, in his name.

In his classroom, Webster would ask students to write stories based on song lyrics, or he would associate songs that had the current week's spelling words in their titles or lyrics. He understood that music played an unforgettable role in teaching, from learning the ABCs to finding a child's purpose in life.

This is what happened with Clifford, who Webster mentored at Hayes-Leonard Elementary School. When most kids in Clifford's fifth-grade class played sports during recess, he played music, starting with the drums.

Webster also gave Clifford his first "rock star moment" when he lined up his classmates outside the music room after recess and had them shout, "Chad! Chad! Chad!" as he exited the room.

Webster and Clifford both enjoyed Beatles' songs, which is likely why Clifford used the song "Yellow Submarine" to teach the Cooks Corners' kids how to play guitar.

"We… all… live… in a yellow submarine!" they sang loudly while trying to change chords.

The beauty about songs is that they largely remain the same, submerged in our collective memory, generation after generation. There's something special about watching three generations of fans singing the same Beatles' song, joining in the melody of familiarity.

"Everyone gets a chance to participate with hands-on experience," Cory Webster said. "Many of these children have never picked up a guitar before, so who knows. This experience might help set the next Chad Clifford onto a career in music."

Clifford agreed, pointing out how fun it is to watch kids create music within minutes.

"It's also a nice introduction to what we do at Front Porch Music," he said. "It allows the child to try a guitar in a comfortable group setting, which may be more appealing for the beginner than a private lesson."

At the completion of the in-class guitar lessons, two lucky students were chosen by a school committee to receive 12 weeks of free guitar lessons, sponsored by the scholarship fund. Those students are Mackenzie Jones and Jimmy Dillabaugh.

"Right now the program is in its infant stages, but we hope to expand it next year to at least one more school with, perhaps, more schools in years to follow," said Webster, who accompanied the students in his brother's absence.

But not entirely. In the front of the classroom rested a photo of Gary Webster, watching over the students learning, laughing and singing.

"He would have loved this program," his brother said.


Twitter @jdavich

For more information about the Gary Webster Young Musicians Scholarship program, visit http://garywebster.org/2016/04/gary-webster-young-musicians-program-underway-at-cooks-corners/.

To make a donation to keep it in operation, visit: https://www.portercountyfoundation.org/give-now.html

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