Boones Ferry rocks out with professional musician
The past two weeks have been one ongoing rock and roll concert at Boones Ferry Primary, where students have spent music class learning from local legend John Nilsen.
From May 30-June 9, Nilsen worked alongside Boones Ferry music teacher Andrew Webster, teaching students of all grade levels the ins and outs of guitar and piano.
Students have been practicing both instruments off and on since the start of the school year, but Nilsen's residency focused on songwriting, giving students the tools and courage to embark on the creation of their own music. Students first learned chords from Nilsen and then about music composition and how to create a compelling melody. Nilsen says he was blown away by the prowess of students, and how quickly they took to what can be a frustrating exercise even for professional musicians.
"Seeing the kids when you come in at one level and then how they're up (on a different level) by the end of the residency is my favorite part," he says. "They come up a few notches in their understanding of what it means to maybe take an idea and turn it into a song. They're all at different levels, but they're all impressive in what they can do."
Students played on instruments that Webster has collected over the years. He's built a staple of equipment that includes dozens of guitars of all shapes and sizes, as well as a handful of keyboards for students more interested in the piano. He purchases discounted instruments from friends in the music industry, craigslist and even garage sales, ensuring every student gets an instrument during class. He's got regular-sized guitars for older students, smaller guitars for kindergarteners and first-graders, and even left-handed guitars for southpaws. He replaces every instrument's strings with the nylon variety to go easy on fingers, but students always get a true musical experience.
"This is a really cool process for the kids where they're learning chord progressions and techniques from a great musician like John," Webster says. "I see each individual class twice a week and we have a lot going on during the year, so this is nice to have focused instruction for extended periods of time. The goal is to include this in our concerts throughout the year."
Nilsen — a longtime recording artist in the Pacific Northwest — founded his record label Magic Wing 30 years ago. He still tours the West Coast with his two bands John Nilsen and SWIMFISH and The John Nilsen Trio, performing some 225 times every year. Despite his busy schedule, Nilsen has taught residency classes in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District for the past 20 years.
"My mom was a piano teacher and she still is a piano teacher, so I grew up with instruction and teaching. I'm in a career where I can't teach because I'm on tour so frequently, so this is a way that I can satisfy that and help kids who are tomorrow's musicians," Nilsen says. "All the students benefit, and some of the group you can see immediate payoff. To see them blossom is a wonderful thing."
Nilsen — who will play with John Nilsen and SWIMFISH at the Lake Theatre in Lake Oswego July 24 — says the goal is for every student to write their own song by the end of his residency. Students brought that goal to fruition June 8-9, performing original music for their peers. Some students gave solo performances while others presented group performances. And while many songs were only partially complete, Nilsen says you never know when you've got a hit on your hands.
"You guys should come tour with me," he joked with Webster's class June 8. "You're all already rock stars."