Everything Evanston: Willard Elementary School music teacher develops music festival

Molly Lubbers, Assistant City Editor

Molly Lubbers/The Daily Northwestern
Arturo Fuerte, Willard Elementary School music teacher, is one of 30 finalists for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching this year. He said he loves the mess in the music room because it shows how much he and the students work. In his free time, Fuerte coaches 23 student bands.

MOLLY LUBBERS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Molly Lubbers, and this is Everything Evanston.

In the basement of Willard Elementary School, there is a room cluttered with instruments. You have to be careful when you’re walking around so you don’t bump into a drum set, guitar or keyboard. And in the middle of all of this are four girls, rocking out.

MOLLY LUBBERS: That’s Not So Noobie practicing. They’re working on a cover of “No Roots” by Alice Merton. As they play, music teacher Arturo Fuerte is there to help.

Not So Noobie is one of the many elementary school bands preparing for the two-day Hootenanny Music Festival later this year. Fourth- and fifth-graders at Willard can form bands and perform at the music fest. Fuerte founded the festival two years ago. Now, that name — Hootenanny — has a few reasons behind it.

ARTURO FUERTE: What Hootenanny’s are, it’s just an open mic for bands. And so I said, what perfect thing to do at a school that has an owl as a mascot.

MOLLY LUBBERS: The first year, a total of 11 bands played. But that number has grown since.

ARTURO FUERTE: Oh, God, it was exciting. It’s exciting. Like I said, it’s almost like a runaway train now. I don’t know, 23 bands is a lot. It’s a lot, and I want to give everybody their individual attention.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Before school, after school, lunch, recess, you name it. When Fuerte isn’t teaching classes, he’s coaching bands. And if you ask his students, it pays off. Fifth-grader Madeline Hobbs said she can play more than five instruments.

MADELINE HOBBS: I would probably be some weird 10-year-old just not knowing how to do anything without Mr. Fuerte. He teaches us all these instruments. All this stuff. Like, I had no idea how to play drums, and he taught me in one day.

MOLLY LUBBERS: His wife Shelly Fuerte said he’s not just teaching them music. For the festival, students pick their group, name and song they play. They even pose for an album cover picture.

SHELLY FUERTE: He’s really teaching them these great skills of interpersonal skills and making it work, having to get together, setting the rehearsals, being on time. And he’s not really being the disciplinarian and more being the guide and the facilitator and really putting it on them that if they want to make it happen, they have to do the work.

MOLLY LUBBERS: And the Hootenanny isn’t a typical school concert. Fuerte noticed how some parents would leave performances after their student was done. His solution? After the show, students have an autograph session. That way, the audience stays the entire time.

ARTURO FUERTE: We make you feel like rock stars and that’s our job. And happy students are going to learn. They’re going to learn faster. They’re going to bring all those skills into the classroom. It’s just a joy to watch.

MOLLY LUBBERS: The Hootenanny Music Festival also gives students a chance to bond. The girls in Not So Noobie have known each other for a long time.

LULU VAN DEN BERG: It’s basically like a giant hanging out time with your friends playing music. Like, it’s so awesome, with an awesome teacher teaching you how to play this music.

MOLLY LUBBERS: That’s Lulu Van Den Berg, Not So Noobie’s drummer. She said it’s cool to learn from Fuerte because he knows what he’s talking about. Stella Lucks is the keyboardist of Not So Noobie.

STELLA LUCKS: He’s the one who brought us together. He’s like a wizard of music.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Of the students eligible to play in the Hootenanny, about 70 percent will participate. Fuerte was a professional music player for years before becoming a teacher. Now, he wants kids to value music, no matter their level of investment.

ARTURO FUERTE: For me, band, orchestra, choir’s the best of the best, right, you’re gonna teach them music. They’re gonna be studied musicians. Well, what about the rest of the rest? They can still make music and that’s what makes our program super well-rounded. Everyone gets to make music.

MOLLY LUBBERS: At the same time, he inspires some students to become deeply involved. Fuerte has taught bassist Hailey Kreps-LaBore since she was in second grade. Before she was in his class, the only instruments she played were the xylophone and recorder. Now, as a fifth-grader, she makes original music.

HAILEY KREPS-LABORE: He was the one that got me into being so passionate about music and he got me to starting writing songs and entering them into competitions. He’s my favorite teacher ever, and I’m scared to go to middle school because I don’t want him to not be our music teacher.

MOLLY LUBBERS: To teach his fourth- and fifth- graders, Fuerte uses a technique called “Modern Band.” In 2013, he was trained in the method by Little Kids Rock, which is a nonprofit that provides instruction and music equipment to educators. When he came to Willard, he brought the program with him.

ARTURO FUERTE: It’s music that they know and they love and they get it much faster. And you don’t need to be able to read and write music to speak that language. That’s what modern band is. Basically, imagine a giant rock band in your classroom.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Some of Fuerte’s colleagues have seen the program in action, including the Willard Librarian Chris Skoglund.

CHRIS SKOGLUND: He just loves what he does, and that really, really shines through. And he does it in a way that is very relevant to what kids are wanting to learn and how they want to connect to music.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Although the Hootenanny Music Festival is geared to the upper grades, students don’t have to wait until fourth and fifth grade to experience his teaching. Remember, Fuerte is coaching these bands during his free time — it’s not his entire job.

MOLLY LUBBERS: Whether during class time or not, Fuerte teaches music like a language. He has students try something, then goes back to explain. The focus is on playing first.

MADELINE HOBBS: One day he’ll just come up to us and just take away the lyrics, take away all that stuff, and we’re like, “wait, what?” And then he just makes us do it and see how we do. And at first, we’re all scared of the pressure, all that stuff, but once we do it, we realize that we’re just fine because he taught us so much.

MOLLY LUBBERS: At the end of Not So Noobie’s lesson, they decide how to finish their song.

Fuerte often says it’s the students who do all the work. But when Not So Noobie’s done at 4:35 p.m., he still has another band to coach before he heads home. Until he’s finished with the Hootenanny Music Festival, he’ll be at the school and ready to coach every morning. Thanks for listening.

This episode was reported and produced by me, Molly Lubbers. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor in Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: mollylubbers2023@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @mollylubbers

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