By Steve Hansen
QCS Managing Editor
You wouldn’t think you would go to music class and learn to use a drill.
For students at Tucumcari Elementary School, however, construction has been part of musical education for two weeks that end Thursday under the direction of Donald Knaack, who calls himself The Junkman.
Knaack’s program combines messages about conservation and the environment as his students learn about vibration and sound, and rhythm. There are no traditional musical instruments involved, but the kids spend half of the class beating rhythms on plain boards with wooden dowels, while Knaack leads them using sticks padded with rubber bands on a plain plastic drum.
“DON’T let the wa-ter run. DON’T let the wa-ter run. DON’T let the wa-ter run,” Knacck intones as the kids follow the rhythmic pattern in time to Knaack’s tom-tom like beat on the plastic drum.
“DON’T stay. In the show-er. DON’T stay. In the show-er…”
The water conservation messages are literally drummed into their heads.
After the messages and the drumming the classes are divided into teams. One team works outside beside a metal frame, surrounded by tailpipes, lengths of metal tubing, hubcaps and discarded snow skis — and an old cement mixer. Today they’re cleaning these pieces. Eventually, they will attach them to the metal frame, which will support a device that will resemble a Rube Goldberg contraption but will make music.
The cement mixer will act as a sort of gong. The skis will make two different sounds, depending on whether they’re struck on the long or short side. The tailpipes will add a haunting clang of their own. Hubcaps will make cymbal-like sounds and the tubes will create tones.
Inside, the students are preparing lengths of tubing and cleaning smaller pieces. Part of the preparation of the tubes involves drilling, which Knaack very carefully supervises. Younger kids file out sharp edges on the tubes.
For Knaack, a successful composer and percussion instrumentalist, his tour as The Junkman is part of a journey that in some ways began with his work with John Cage, an avant garde composer who, to Knaack and others, succeeded in steering music into a radically new direction.
Cage, Knaack said, wrote music for junk — like the sounds Knaack said were in his head from working in his father’s garage — and his music incorporates chance and improvisation.
Knaack brings these re-definitions of music to bear as he puts elementary school students through two weeks of environmental education, especially recycling, playing rhythms together, and construction. He decided a few years ago that education was the best way to bring music to the most people, and he decided to devote himself to introducing music to elementary school kids.
Knaack’s program in Tucumcari culminates in an outdoor concert played on the instrument Knaack and the kids have built at the elementary school at 2 p.m. Thursday.
Andrew Kesten, Tucumcari Elementary’s regular music teacher, enthusiastically supports The Junkman’s program, which adds environmental messaging and more education about the science of music and elements of invention and resourcefulness.
To Kesten, it’s a logical offshoot of the Orff Schulwerk program he has adopted, which incorporates instruments like the xylophone, movement and singing, and allowing all students to participate in the musical experience, regardless of native musical talent. He also incorporates the Kodály approach, which teaches musical concepts via simple folk melodies.
Both Knaack and Kesten have chosen to be teachers after successful careers in musical performance and composition at prestigious institutions.
Knaack is a graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo in percussion, and served in its Creative Associates program. Kesten is a virtuoso tuba player who honed his art at the University of Houston and later at the Hartt school of the University of Hartford, Conn.