Strumming, singing and inspiring

Don't let Scott Fitzpatrick's band's name fool you. He's no nomad.

Sure, the Costa Mesa resident sings and plays guitar for the Fabulous Nomads, which bills itself as Orange County's oldest surf band. But during the week, he hardly lives the life of a roaming musician. Instead, he's firmly planted — in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where he serves as elementary music specialist.

Fitzpatrick, who does most of his work at Rea Elementary School and Davis Magnet School, has worked in Newport-Mesa for two decades and helped coordinate music education since 2005. With the new school year beginning, Fitzpatrick spoke to the Daily Pilot about his teaching philosophies, his childhood and why he'll never tell Beethoven to roll over. Here are excerpts from the conversation:


Let's talk a little about music education. In your mind, how important is music to a young kid starting out in school?

Studies prove… [laughs] Actually, I was fortunate. When I did my master's project, my title was "The Effects of Sustained Applied Arts Education on Student Achievement," and that means everything from attendance to applying for AP courses to whether or not there's truancy or vandalism … GPAs, test scores, all kinds of different kinds of data to describe what student achievement is.

And I looked at students who were involved for a long period of time in hands-on arts activities — not necessarily talking about the art, but actually engaging in it, whether that be a hands-on ceramics class or a vocal class or a band class or drama or something of this nature, where students are actually actively engaged in the art form with a teacher, a specialist working with them. The results speak for themselves.

Specifically, what does it do for a student? In sports, they talk about how being on a team builds teamwork; it teaches responsibility. Can you point to the same thing with music education?

Yes, absolutely. I'm very much into sports. I was in sports all the way through school. I really believe that it's never an either/or when it comes to sports and music. They both teach the same basic elements and the buy-in to the community.

So when I was a band director at Davis ... that was the No. 1 thing I said students would learn. You're going to learn to read music, and that's a new language for you. You're going to learn to play the instruments. You're going to have this exciting feeling of playing in an ensemble, and what that is is teamwork.

When you were a kid, did you have a music teacher who really influenced you?

I had a number of coaches. Some of my football coaches, for the same reasons. I had a great vocal teacher in high school, but I can't remember her name.

How did you get into music?

When I was 5, my mom took pictures of me playing piano with my feet dangling. I couldn't reach the pedals. And I was walking around with this little miniature guitar. It's just part of who you are, you know? It's like breathing. You decide, "I'm going to walk around on two legs" or "I'm going to breathe in and breathe out." That's just who you are.

So I think when I was in high school, singing in the choir, I realized, "I don't ever want to stop this. Why would I ever want to leave this?" And, you know, I'd been working a lot of jobs at the time, too, construction and delivering feed to horses and all this stuff, but I just realized I really loved music and I really enjoyed the process. ... I couldn't put it in words at the time, but I just knew I was going to be a music teacher.

You play in a band, of course, the Fabulous Nomads. Would you ever trade being a teacher for being a professional musician full-time?

Professional musician full-time? I feel like I already am a professional musician full-time. I think that's one of those either/or choices that you don't necessarily have to make. If I was a full-time musician, traveling the world, I would just love it. But I'm also part of the process of these children's lives, where any one of them can create the next design, say, like the next iPhone or the next musical instrument, or they're going to bring that same core love of beauty to a whole other vast amount of students that I don't even know. So to me, to be part of that process is an honor.

When you teach elementary school or middle school kids, do you get a feeling of what kind of music they're into?

I get a feeling for it, yeah. I find myself becoming, the older I get, more and more protective of my students. I want to fill them with opportunities musically to enjoy themselves, to feel that they're part of something special and part of something great. And I'm only going to reinforce things or communicate things like that with them.

When you say "protective," what are you protecting them from?

Well, I don't think it's my place to make choices of what kind of music or what kind of things they expose themselves to, but as far as a district employee goes or an educator, first of all, we have our curriculum and things, the standards that we're going to be teaching. ... The music that we'll expose students to in the school may not be what they're exposed to outside the classroom. Not to say that those things aren't wonderful and great, and we all enjoyed those things that came and went at that age too. But my job is to expose them to something new and maybe something different.

So when my students have asked me, "Why can't we listen to this or that?" maybe once in a while I'll have someone share something. But I would have a listening station, and students would go and listen and they would select different classical composers or romantic composers, baroque composers. They'd select jazz; they'd select all kinds of different things of this nature that they had no idea about, that they'd never heard. So it's not a matter of me saying, "Oh, you shouldn't do this or that." It's more a matter of, "Here's a really great example of something I think you'll enjoy if you're just given the chance to see it."

Out of those pieces they're introduced to, are there any you see them really responding to every time?

I have seen students really enjoy Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." They love it. It has a whole story and poem that goes with it. They enjoy some of the tone poems by Dvorak that I've gotten to play for them. You know, it's really interesting — they really enjoy jazz, too. There's a reason that the classics are classics. Beethoven still wakes everybody up. Vivaldi, when you hear Vivaldi, there's something about those strings moving that way that sparks something. It sparked something in people hundreds of years ago. And it'll spark something in a 12-year-old or 11-year-old or 9-year-old today if they're given the opportunity.

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