Everyone knows of music, we hear it on the radio, in the background of a commercial, or even on the side of a street. Everyone can pick out their favorite song, or hum along to a Beatles tune, but one place where music is scarce is in the high school classroom. However, Mr. Kenneth Young feels differently, he expresses his passion for music and history with it in this interview. As well, he shares his goals for the future, and his hopes for more music, more creativity, in every classroom!– MB
Ken Young has been a fixture at Clayton A. Bouton High School, teaching Earth Science, Physics, and Meteorology for the past 29 years. In his time here, he has been the Sophomore class advisor, leader of the Voorheesville Trekkers (our local travel club whose latest trips have included Italy, Ireland, and, next spring, Iceland!), and the Science Department leader. One thing, though, has remained constant in Mr. Young’s classroom: music! Whether it’s songs to help students remember Earth Science topics, or his singing his own tunes to help lighten the load of the pandemic, Mr. Young has proven that creativity in the classroom can present itself in many ways, shapes and forms. He sat down with the Blackbird Review’s Merrin Brick to discuss why in his career music and creativity have been some of the the mainstays of his classroom.
Hello, we’re here with Mr. Young today. How are you?
So on our lovely day today, we wanted to conduct our faculty interview, and usually at the Blackbird Review we try to interview teachers and faculty who have musical, artistic, or creative hobbies that they include both inside and outside of school. In the past, we have interviewed Mrs. Levy, Mr. Simons, and Ms. Spollen, and the club this year has chosen to interview you, because as most people know you’re very musical and you include music in your classroom. So we want to learn more about your interest in music and your experience with it.
So, to start, when did you first start having an interest in music?
As a kid I played piano and took piano lessons and loved it, and started writing my own songs on piano. So, probably in late elementary school.
Elementary school, wow! So then your first instrument was piano. Did you have an instructor or was it just kind of…
Yeah, I took lessons and then I also played clarinet in the band starting in elementary school all the way to high school. The guitar came later.
I played clarinet in elementary school so…
So was your interest in music influenced solely by seeing it in school and learning it in school, or was your community, or your household, also heavily involved in music?
My father played jazz piano, not professionally, but he did play out sometimes. It was more of a hobby for him, so the house was constantly filled with the sound of jazz piano, which I guess kind of programmed me to like music.
Interesting, so you first started playing piano, and then you moved on to clarinet. Was there any reason you moved from what’s seen more as a percussion instrument to a wind instrument?
My dad had a clarinet from a pawn shop in Pittsburgh that he had played since elementary school, so it’s like from the 1920s. A really nice old wooden clarinet and I just loved looking at it and I think I just switched because it’s easier to carry and you know, you could play in the band with all the other kids more easily.
So you first started with piano, but when did you first start playing the guitar, or for a start like getting into the guitar? Because I had you for earth science, and everyone knows that every unit you had a song where you would bring your guitar and you just kind of strum the guitar.
It was actually like, in my late thirties. I was probably like 38, and there was one of those old little weird ¾ sized guitars with the blue and white pattern on it that my grandfather had gotten for me in a pawn shop and was in my closet growing up. And I never played it and never had. The strings on it were falling apart, so to get started I got strings for it one Thanksgiving and I started messing with it. And then I’m like, wow this is fun, even though my fingers hurt a lot at first, and I just kind of took it from there, kind of got hooked. I started buying better guitars and took some lessons. And then, when we opened Emack and Bolio’s, I had decided that it could also be a music venue. My wife used to work here so she quit her job, and her dream was to have an ice cream parlor. My dream was never to have an ice cream parlor, but I thought I could have a music venue. So we started having live music there, and having open mics, and so I started playing at open mics at Emack, and building up my confidence, and then I started writing songs, and then I started writing Earth science songs because it was fun and kind of made learning fun.
And you were in Albany at that point, right?
No, I was living in Slingerlands.
So, do you have any songs published?
Just on Youtube. Yeah, I mean maybe when I retire that could be a little project to try to get them into some form, get some of them published. Nothing, you know, [formal], I’m just playing in the moment.
Do you have any favorite styles of music?
I would say acoustic rock and folk would be my favorite. I did take blues lessons for a while and fiddled with that. I think I mostly like acoustic rock
And, are there any bands that inspire you? Like, when you mention Blues, I immediately thought of Blues Traveler.
Right, I mean I was never, I never got super into blues. I see kids in high school start super young and they’re soloing and playing lead guitar. I kinda, you know, started late with a lot of finger picking and stuff like that, and then I would hear a song and think, “oh, I could play that on guitar,” and I’d look it up and learn it. So I have songs on my list of songs from such a wide variety of musicians, you know, going from Louis Armstrong jazz, to the Allman Brothers, John Denver, you know, some Taylor Swift, modern stuff and old stuff. If I hear a song and I think I could play it I just download it. It doesn’t matter what genre it is and what type of music it is.
When did you first think to include your skills and playing guitar in your teaching? I know you talked about how you went from that acoustic rock to just mimicking, and copying the songs. When did you start creating your own? When did you start thinking, ‘oh I can include this in my teaching’?
Right, so I think probably around the late 1990’s or 2000, for our Solstice party; remember the Solstice parties? Mrs. Barcher wrote a bunch of Earth Science holiday songs because she actually used to team teach Earth Science with us, and I just had fun taking known songs and adding Earth Science lyrics. It’s just like rhymes, and I like finding words that go together and, I don’t know, get a little thrill out of that. So, that was before I even learned guitar, and then when I learned guitar, you know, I wanted to write a hydrologic cycle song, so I did “Puff Puff the Magic Dragon” and just kind of changed the lyrics for that. So that was probably, let’s see, late 2000’s into 2010, I started writing Earth Science songs and then I started making my own music, too, like “Topo Love!”
A classic Earth Science song! Do you think it’s important to include creativity and music in the classroom? And would you encourage other teachers to include it?
I mean, for teachers that might have artistic skills, you can include that. You know if they have music skills you could include that. Music for some people is out of their comfort zone. I think it’s important to try to find your strong point and then add that to your teaching to make it fun and unique. So that’s what I did with the music.
Do you think when you first started writing songs, and all throughout now, because you still use the songs in your classes, do you see students that connect with the material because they are hearing these songs and they’re listening to them?
Definitely! You know even some of the ones that I didn’t write I got from other teachers, like you know the “Rising, Expanding, and Cooling” and “The Windward Side is the Wet Side”, you hear kids humming that during a test, you know, to try to remember. Yeah, so definitely! It definitely helped them.
And then, on a slightly different note, a lot of people in the school also know you are an avid traveler and you run the travel program at school, which I am a member of. Do you draw any inspiration for music from your travels and just how does travel impact your life in general?
So, the traveling started with my son wanting to go on a trip with Bethlehem High School. I asked the teacher about it and she found out that I taught at Voorheesville and asked if anyone was doing trips here? I said no, so I thought I would run the trip with them. I was invited to run the trip with them, this was in 2012, when we went to Australia and New Zealand, and I just got hooked. I hadn’t done a ton of traveling before that. This was kind of the beginning of my big travels. I mean, I had been to some other countries but, you know, I just absolutely loved it. In terms of music, a couple trips I found a guitar and sang. In Portugal, the tour director said, “let’s stop by my house. I have a guitar. We can bring it with us.” We were playing guitar and singing everywhere, so that was a lot of fun. We also play music on the buses. And sometimes I grab the mike and sing and play guitar. So, you know, the trips aren’t specifically music oriented. I mean every tour we go on, the tour directors have local music that they play, like a playlist, or last year it was on Spotify, to introduce kids to local music. So I don’t get a guitar every trip and try to play, but it’s nice how the tour directors always know it’s a good way to show people the culture and to bond with the students by showing them what kind of music is popular in this country. You know, they will play some of the old fashioned kind of musicians from years ago, more traditional music, and then they’ll play some of the modern stuff and that’s every trip I’ve been on. I heard in Ireland the guy sings a lot. So that should be exciting.
So I think my last follow up question is: you mentioned when you’re talking about travel how they (the tour directors) want you to connect with the culture, which is very similar to how you want to use your songs in Earth Science to connect to the material. So are there any future hopes you have for music in your classroom or, taking what you learn from the trips, what you learn about music, and other cultures, and connecting it back to your classroom?
I mean, I guess I could take the styles of music in other countries and try to write some Earth Science songs, but I haven’t really brought the two together. I would like to make, I mean, CDs don’t exist anymore, but I would like to get my songs recorded before I retire, so that they can stick around Voorheesville so the future science teachers want to use them. There’s a few chapters where I wanna write another couple of songs before I retire.
I think that’s a great idea! OK this is very interesting and insightful and are there any final thoughts you wanna add?
I mean, any way students and teachers could make learning fun I’m all for it! I think it helps you connect and learn things better, and I also think any opportunities people have to travel are very important because it makes the world a smaller place and helps us all get along better and understand each other!
What is your typical song writing process?
Yeah, music theory wise, I’ve taken music theory classes way in the past, but I feel like, if you had a real musician analyze my songs, they might appear a little bit simple. But I usually come up with a nice chord progression and then I try to do the chord progression several times with several different lyrics, you know, like for igneous rocks, maybe repeat them 2 or 3 times to go through all the igneous stuff, and then have the chorus, and then go back, you know, and repeat it for sedimentary rocks and then, 2 or 3, times and then did the chorus. Some of my songs have gotten a little more complex where I have a little hook leading up to the chorus and maybe a fancy little ending, like my planet Earth song, which I sing at the beginning of the year. But, I don’t know, I guess I kind of wing it, and go with my heart- what’s inside- and without trying to get too caught up in the technicalities of it.