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‘Songbirds’ opens the world to Phoenix students

PHOENIX — The warm sunlight beaming outside seemed to echo down the hallways at Phoenix Elementary Wednesday as they filled with the sounds of happy singing children.

Every Wednesday, students gather in the school music room to enjoy a fun hour of storytelling, singing and dancing, courtesy of a regional “Songbirds” program facilitated by Rogue World Music (rogueworldmusic.org).

Jamie Lusch/ Mail Tribune Travis Puntarelli tells a story to students during music class Wednesday at Phoenix Elementary School.

The Ashland nonprofit is partnering with the Phoenix-Talent School District to bring the program, which introduces different cultures via story and song, to elementary students in the district’s three grade schools.

Songbirds teaches songs and dances from around the world using cooperative singing, movement, body percussion and play to develop fundamental music concepts of pitch, scale and meter.

Songbirds music instructor Travis Puntarelli weaves together song meaning and cultural context in his storytelling process to help culturally place, and connect students to, the stories he shares.

This week’s story featured a little girl named Yeh-Shen, whose only friend was a fish with beautiful golden eyes. The tale, set in China, came with more than a few twists and turns as the little girl learns of friendship, loss and the ins and outs of a sometimes-cruel world.

While introducing students to the Mandarin tune “Mo Li Hua,” Puntarelli shared the girl’s story, which was not unlike Cinderella according to at least a few students, in an animated style, pausing to allow students to “ooh” and “aah” on command.

“Mr. T” to his students, Puntarelli said he enjoys the contrast of telling a story in a quiet, soft tone and then having students sing and dance “in a big way.”

Yeh-Shen’s tale ended with the girl donning beautiful golden shoes, provided courtesy of the spirit of the fish, for a royal event. She ultimately ends up, as in the similar Disney tale, living as royalty with a much better lease on life.

Fourth-grader Cole Jones, 10, said he always looks forward to Wednesdays with Mr. T.

“I really like the music class because we get to learn so much, and I love when we get to act out because last time I got to be a tree and got to open and close my door, so it was super cool. I like to sing and do the dances,” he said.

“It makes you feel so happy being able to do something with everybody and hear the stories. It’s hard to explain it, but it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Tristan Bowling, a first-grader, looks forward to dancing and being able to be a little rowdy.

“I like that we can sing and we get to stomp our feet really hard,” he said.

“We get to just walk in and step down the steps, and the first thing you get to do is the teacher gets us ready to sing. No music at school would be boring and sad. We all want music.”

With a background in music and theater, having traveled all over, including France and Italy, to perform and to teach, Puntarelli said he’s excited to share his craft with students. He enjoys watching students learn to express themselves through music.

“Musicality of kids in different places … varies in terms of how rhythm is exchanged and other things. In some places, it’s natural for people to be able to just burst into song,” he said.

“Culturally, it’s a little quieter here. Comprehension of rhythm not as keen as in other places but, and I hope, maybe it just has to do with the fact there are not music lessons. It’s wild to be somewhere there was no music happening, and we’re hopeful that the little bit we’re giving them is making a difference.”

With a shortage of music educators in schools, Phoenix Elementary Principal Shawna Schleif said she was grateful for, and impressed by, the Songbirds program and hoped to see it grow and expand in the Rogue Valley.

Fourth-grader Ariana Orozco said she hoped to keep going with Wednesday classes of singing and dancing and “hearing cool stories.”

“I really look forward to singing, because I love singing and dancing and I like the stories he tells us,” said the 10-year-old.

“I think someday we’re gonna end up always needing music, no matter what. Music is really important for our lives, because it just makes people feel happy.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.