Music in the Schools Series: Bay School of San Francisco
Periodically, the Kids Around the Bay column profiles one of the local school music programs, to provide parents with a sense of the resources and philosophy offered, as well as how programs compare. This week we spoke with Colin Williams of The Bay School of San Francisco.
The Bay School of San Francisco was the brainchild of Malcolm Manson, one of the most revered, and modest, private school educators in the Bay Area. He lead the school initially and since then has tried to withdraw from time to time; he remains the school’s assistant chaplain. ‘Bay’, which has 311 students, opened in 2004 in the Presidio. It has a reputation for being focused on science and technology and, always in the background, the study of ethics and religion. The school’s academic culture grows out of a sense that in the long run the world is better served by specialists rather than generalists, and as a broad notion, depth of knowledge trumps breadth.
The Arts at Bay
“I would say that overall we also value a mindful approach to education,” says Colin Williams, a history teacher, who also oversees the school’s instrumental music program. The program tends toward jazz, but includes electronic music and a very successful 20-member school choir. “Having said that, we’re not a Buddhist school by any means, but certainly we believe that meditation can play a critical role in helping students master their emotions and achieve their goals.”
“When it comes to music, this mindful approach asks students to be both thoughtful and deliberate in their creation. Recently, I had a beginning jazz student who kept asking me, should I do this, or should I do that? And I said, I can give you some suggestions but really the question is, did you like what you just played? And, if not, what are you going to be about that? How can you rethink this?”
“One of my goals is to make students more self-reliant and get them out of ‘body’ habits and into habits of mind. That’s one reason I get them to sing scales and melodies before they play them. It’s so easy, as a musician, to fall back on what’s easy, what’s been achieved, and so I press musicians to get out that trap, because, of course, repeating what you’ve already done is not improvising. My question to students is, what can you create, what’s something new you can do with this?”
Williams has been with the Bay School for eight years, He graduated from the Loyola University, New Orleans, plays electric bass and upright bass, and appears with his trio, from time to time, at various venues around the Bay Area.
“I’m interested in the art of improvisation — this is really what distinguishes us from other school programs — and one way to do that is to get students to notice structural similarities. And so we might study the Gershwins’ 1930 hit “I Got Rhythm” and those famous “rhythm changes” as a way to introduce 500 other songs with the same chord structure. In other words, the idea is to see a template and work toward an intrinsic knowledge of songs and playability. Naturally, we also study scales and melodies and how using one approach might not sound good but then you can use another approach and get the sound you want. The idea is to use your knowledge and creativity to make the music your own.”
Music studies include courses in electronic music, jazz, and composition. Facilities include a band room replete with instruments that students are encouraged to experiment with. There’s also a practice room and, occasionally, private teachers have used the facility to work with a particular student. Bay does not recruit music students, which would be “contrary” to the school’s culture, as Williams put it. But ensembles do play at various middle schools around the city, and if that attracts students so much the better. Students who are musically inclined at Bay have gone on to such places as Oberlin and the Berklee College of Music. Tuition for 2013/13 is $37,600.
Mark MacNamara is a journalist who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The Stanford Social Innovation Review and The International Herald Tribune. His website is: macnamband.com.