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Songs of Unity and Diversity

February 13, 2019 in Inside SWS

Music is the language of the heart, the language of the soul. It’s also a carrier of cultures, and often it’s the doorway to understanding cultures different from our own. For two SWS music teachers, music has led them to bridge disparate worlds—from New York to Africa to South America, from South Carolina to Europe, and eventually to Seattle and SWS. As we mark Black History Month, music teachers Gordy Ryan and Robert Murphy reflected on their musical, cultural, and pedagogical journeys.

Gordy Ryan grew up in New York. His father collected jazz records, and young Gordy learned to operate a turntable when he was two years old. In his 20s, he discovered drumming. Robert Murphy is the youngest of four children in an Air Force family. By the time he was in grade school in the 1980s, his family had settled in Columbia, South Carolina, where his love of music grew. Their musical experiences have been diverse, and the two men defy cultural expectations of their respective fields: Ryan, who teaches the lineage of world drumming from Africa to South and Central America and the Caribbean, is white. Murphy, whose interest in classical music and string pedagogy developed in predominantly white orchestras, is African American.

A Musical Heritage

Murphy’s youth was spent in the choir loft of Columbia’s New Ebenezer Baptist Church. He played piano for Sunday School and church services. Theirs was a deep musical bench, he recalled. ”You’d have eight people sitting there, waiting to play. They’d take turns. It was kind of phenomenal watching that kind of talent. In the end, it was always about, ‘How does it move you?’” That depth brought with it freedom and an openness to risk-taking, but also a demand for emotional investment, Murphy said. “My mom would say, ‘That doesn’t have enough soul,’” when she felt Murphy was just going through the motions or becoming too immersed in technique.

Ryan, buoyed by his love for and knowledge of jazz, found it helped him navigate the world. When his family moved to Minnetonka, Minnesota, for a year, he was able to find his social niche thanks to jazz. In college, he transferred to the University of Colorado from Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, lured by the mountains and a love of climbing. It was after a climbing accident that he met a Cuban musician and discovered drumming, finding the rhythms helped his healing. In the early 1970s, he made a pilgrimage to South America, climbing, drumming, and collecting instruments. “By now, drums were my passion,” he said.

Defying Musical Expectations

For Ryan, the drumming itself drew him in. In the 1970s, he was taking dance classes at the Olatunji Center in Harlem, founded by Babatunde Olatunji. “It was the essence of blackness, the essence of soul.” One afternoon, he chanced upon a rehearsal of the drumming group that accompanied the dancers. He began to sit in with the group, who practiced near the center. Eventually, others noticed his presence.

“Mr. Olatunji says he likes the way you play,” one of the musicians told him. If he wanted to commit to the music, he was told, “You will have a job.” He became part of the touring group Drums of Passion, learning through this apprenticeship. Whether dancing or drumming, Ryan was always the lone white face in the group. “Among the drummers, no problem.” In the 1980s, Olatunji began to purposefully mentor several musicians, including Ryan.

Murphy was nurtured by deep ranks of musical supporters. “Music was always around me,” he said. “The church was a lot of the reason I was able to go to music camps.” In sixth grade, he switched from piano to violin, and he made rapid progress, rising to become concertmaster for the South Carolina All-State Orchestra in high school. “The kids were like, ‘who’s this?’ The whole violin section was white,” he recalled. As a military kid, Murphy had become adept at adapting, speaking the language of soccer on the pitch, the language of music in the orchestra pit, code-switching all the while. “That was my world. I was able to move between the two groups.”

Music Disciples, Musical Discipline

Like Ryan, who had majored in business in college, Murphy fully expected to have a non-musical career, majoring in pre-med at Youngstown State University in Ohio. But “teaching had called to me,” he said. He gained admission to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s String Pedagogy program, where he earned a master’s degree. His work with Darcy Drexler in that program shaped his non-negotiables of teaching.

“Everything takes work. I can’t bend on that fact when people say, ‘Oh, they can’t do it.’ Well then, you haven’t really done the work,” he explained. That doesn’t mean there’s a time limit, just that the learning needs to be supported with work. “The development happens, but sometimes it takes a longer time.”

Murphy taught for eight years in public schools and through a Milwaukee Youth Symphony program called Progressions, which aims to increase orchestra participation by students of color. “You see what it does for them, as long as they’re working on it,” he said, of witnessing students’ perseverance blossom through music. “I saw how families worked. I would see how supportive the parents are.”

For Ryan, teaching grew naturally out of drumming, particularly through seeing the mastery of Babatunde Olatunji. “He could make the ark with the audience,” Ryan said. “This is the main thing I learned from him. It’s another level of understanding that goes on.” In the midst of a renaissance of African culture in the 1970s and 1980s, Olatunji took seriously the work of passing on this heritage to the next generation.

Enriching Music at SWS

Both Ryan and Murphy landed at SWS in fairly prosaic fashion, bringing diversity to the music curriculum of the grade school and high school. A parking lot conversation with then-Seattle Waldorf teacher Wim Gottenbos lured Ryan onto the high school music faculty. Ryan, who was living on Vashon Island but still touring at the time, had two sons enrolled at the grade school. He was dressed for a concert when he came to pick up his children, and Gottenbos invited him to lead a drumming ceremony with his class. That led to an expansion of the high school music program to include Ryan and the World Drumming course. The timing was perfect for finding a new way to connect others with drumming—“I was ready to be finished with being on the road and traveling,” Ryan said.

Murphy had fallen hard for the Pacific Northwest after traveling here in 2010 to interview for another teaching job. When that job wasn’t the right fit, he began researching Seattle independent schools and learned of Waldorf education in general and SWS specifically. “I emailed Nettie (Fabrie) because she had the word ‘pedagogy’ next to her name,” he said with a laugh. The school had not posted a strings instructor job, but they built one around him, flying Murphy out for a visit that he still recalls as “magical.” Months later, he moved to Seattle. “There’s just a lot of things that this school does that are quite amazing,” he said.

Diverse Songs Honor Black History

On the heels of his work with Progressions, Murphy has worked to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in Seattle music. As an African American classical musician in a predominantly white city, “I’m going to be my most authentic self.” He plays violin in the Seattle Collaborative Orchestra, an organization “dedicated to diversity in symphonic classical music.” He is on the staff of the Suzuki Institute of Seattle and also works with Key to Change, a strings education program in the mold of Progressions. Founded by Dr. Quinton Morris, Seattle University music professor, Key to Change is a nonprofit offering low-cost violin and viola lessons to students in South King County.

For Ryan, following the thread of drumming from Africa to Seattle is a sacred responsibility, and not just during Black History Month. That includes learning the history of the African diaspora. “It’s important to know history and make your peace with it,” he said, “Then move ahead. Generations have passed this down. It’s something we embrace.” His students drum out ancient rhythms that connect Hazel Hall in Magnuson Park with Nigeria and Mali, Cuba and New Orleans. “This is a fulfillment of what my brothers wanted me to do,” Ryan said. “I can feel the spirit of those masters—the happiness of their spirits.”

–Karin Swanson, SWS College Counselor