At 7:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning things are pretty quiet at Mt. Eccles Elementary School, but a sign on a music stand just inside the front door hints of the merriment to come.
It reads “Morning Music — FREE LESSONS! Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass and singing.”
Started in 1999 by Belle Mickelson, the 4-H winter music program offers kindergarten through sixth grade students a chance to get their hands on instruments. Preschoolers are welcome to come with their parents or caregivers and adults are encouraged to volunteer.
The program runs from 8 a.m. to 8:35 a.m., but Mickelson asks volunteers to arrive at 7:45 a.m. to help tune instruments.
Getting the room ready for Morning Music is a bit of a production. Chairs need to be set up, the lyrics and chords need to be displayed and instruments have to be set out. Basses are pulled forward from the back of the room, fiddles and mandolins brought down from the top of the cupboards, and ukuleles removed from a plastic tote in the storage room.
At the front of the room Mickelson puts big note pads with hand-written lyrics and chords on music stands. Another set of note pads have the fiddle tablature on display. Each note and chord has a color assigned to it and every instrument in the room has corresponding colored dots on the neck. Color coding is a system that Mickelson created, and has integrated across the Cordova 4-H music programs.
Mickelson was a teacher’s aide at the school when she started Morning Music.
“I was responsible for supervising the breakfast room,” she said. “4-H had a bunch of instruments so I brought them to the school and put them out on the tables. Pretty soon the kids asked, ‘How do we play these?’ and then we were off and running.”
For three years, five days a week in the mornings, Mickelson would play music with the kids.
“Francis Mallory would play the piano and I would play fiddle, guitar, banjo — whatever,” she said. “It was really fun because we played right in the breakfast room so all the kids got to hear us.”
In 2002 Mickelson got a teaching job in Juneau. Morning Music was organized sporadically until she moved back in 2007 and got a grant that paid staff to come twice a week.
“Since then the money has run out and we run Morning Music on a totally volunteer basis,” she said.
Two of the usual volunteers, Kim Menster and Malani Towle, join Mickelson and start tuning instruments. It’s now 7:45 a.m.
“I think it’s a great way to start the day,” says Towle, who has volunteered for the last six years. “Sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself out of bed, and it’s dark and it’s raining, but you get here and it’s just so much fun.”
Towle grew up with Cordova’s 4-H music program, starting in third grade with an after-school guitar club that Mickelson started along with Sam O’Toole.
“Usually when you’re playing an instrument you’re playing at home by yourself, but at Morning Music you get to come and you get to play songs as a group,” she said. “That is one of the things that is the most fun about music to me, playing with other people, and that’s something that Morning Music makes available.”
As 8 a.m. approaches, the kids start to arrive.
Fifth grader John Luke Pitchford has been coming to Morning Music for two years. He heads straight for the guitars, picks one out, and starts playing, changing chords like a pro.
More kids wander in. Some of them, as confident as Pitchford, push past the other kids to get to their instrument of choice. Others wander around the room, scoping out their options before picking one up. For some, it is the first time they have ever touched an instrument, and they look to the volunteers for instruction.
Menster, an enthusiastic and gregarious leader, grabs their attention with a loud “Picks up! Bows up!” and in a low dramatic voice, “bases up — who wants to count?”
A couple hands go up and she selects one of the kids to set the beat with a four-count that leads the room into a haphazard cacophony of “You are my Sunshine” — the fun has begun.
Mickelson keeps things moving like a freight train, running through songs with little attention to wrong notes or individual kids. Instead she moves about the room helping individual kids hold their instruments correctly, and showing them which dots to put their fingers on.
For the next half-hour Menster, Towle, and Mickelson lead the room through Morning Music favorites: “Rockin’ Robin,” “Wagon Wheel” and “Angeline the Baker.” Kids move about the room trying out different instruments.
For the last song Menster requests “Jambalaya,” an up-beat two-step — she is hoping to get Mickelson to dance. Sure enough, after leading the fiddles through the intro she grabs one of the kids and shows him how to do the steps. Soon she has a number of kids up at the front of the room learning to dance. It’s chaos, but that is part of what makes Morning Music great.