Most people see Jennifer Butler as a teacher, but Butler sees herself as a gardener — of sorts.
The Northwoods Fine Arts Academy music teacher is working to cultivate an appreciation of music among her young students.
And because few places are better for growing things than a garden, that’s just what Butler has built at the elementary school that opened in 2012 at 1691 E. Old North Road.
Butler said she developed the concept of a music garden while brainstorming ideas for grant proposals to submit to the Sand Springs Education Foundation.
“I was having a conversation with Mr. Huff, the kindergarten teacher here. He thought of an outdoor stage,” and then Butler came up with the idea for a music performance area.
On one end of the music garden, a multicolored PVC-pipe xylophone lets children see for themselves how different lengths of pipe produce different pitches, from high to low.
A metal xylophone made of galvanized steel accomplishes something similar but with different tones.
Three large trash cans turned upside down on the ground and a small plastic bucket affixed to the wall represent drums, and a cookie tin on the wall makes the perfect combination snare drum and cymbal.
A washboard and bamboo and metal wind chimes round out the instrumentation on site, and buckets full of plastic drumsticks and mallets, as well as other small, handheld percussion instruments, are toted outside by students to use.
“If you think about ‘Stomp,’ that’s what it’s like,” Butler said, referring to the performing group that uses everyday objects as percussion instruments.
By all accounts, the music garden is a hit with the Northwoods students.
“They are very excited,” Butler said. “I went through and showed them pictures of me building things … so that they would understand how much work went into it, but as soon as they get outside, they are so excited.
“That was the whole idea — to give them some joy, especially this year,” she added. “To give them something special that’s going to last for a really long time.”
Tom Huff, the kindergarten teacher, built the stage and the wall that supports part of the music garden’s instrumentation, but Butler created many of the instruments herself.
“We started talking about it in September and got the Sand Springs Education Foundation grant in November, and I started building instruments in December,” she said.
“I have other projects at home,” she added. “I was just trying to get it done over spring break.”
Butler said she isn’t necessarily trying to create musical prodigies on the playground.
“My job is to give them the foundation — and the love,” she said. “My job is to expose them to as many different kinds of music as I can.”
Some of Butler’s students recently viewed the Virtual Symphony by the Sea, where members of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra performed at the Oklahoma Aquarium. Students got to hear great music while learning about the animals that live at the aquarium.
In the classroom, Butler makes sure students’ horizons are expanded, too, playing recordings of everything from South American music and jazz to orchestral music and opera.
“With all the kids, I (teach about) all the instruments,” she said. “Then that gives them some basic skills if they choose to be in band in sixth grade.
“And a lot of the kids will try it in sixth grade, and some of them will get into it and some of them won’t,” she added.
But a love of music isn’t just for people who wish to perform it.
“As they grow up, they decide which kinds of music they want to listen to,” Butler said.
Although fourth- and fifth-graders at Northwoods can participate in choir under Butler’s leadership, for the younger students especially, it’s really more basic.
“With elementary, it’s their chance to explore,” Butler said. “With kindergartners, we talk about highs and lows, fast, slow … and just keeping a steady beat. Each year we build on that with rhythm concepts.”
And because young students can be squirmy, “movement is a big part of keeping the kids engaged,” she said, adding that she incorporates ribbons and other elements of motion into the curriculum.
“This year we’ve done a lot of body percussion,” she said, explaining how the students learn to use their bodies as instruments.
But if there’s one thing children enjoy even more than moving, it’s being outside. And that makes the music garden a perfect place.
“My idea is basically to have the instruments outside so that the kids have access to them at recess or during music class.”
Butler said she couldn’t be more grateful to the Sand Springs Education Foundation for the $1,925.63 grant she and Huff received for the outdoor stage and music garden.
“We would never have been able to do that” without the foundation, she said. “Every year we can fill out applications (for grants), and I’ve been very lucky to get one nearly every year.”
She’s also amazed by the support from administrators within Sand Springs Public Schools, she said.
“The district, as far as supporting the arts and the music, that has been a huge thing,” she said. “It’s just amazing to have such support at the district level.”
And Butler is well-aware of the importance of reaching kids early to get them interested in music.
“This is the foundation,” she said. “If we don’t start them out now, they get further and further behind, and then they’re less interested later on.”
And that’s why she planted a music garden.
“The idea is that it’s being outside,” she said, “but also, it gives them a chance to be creative and let their music ideas grow.”
Gallery: Northwoods Music Garden