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Beyond the Books: composer teaches work to McKinley band students

Composer Darryl Johnson II guides McKinley sixth grade students through his piece called "Farm and Seek."

Iowa schools are typically among the tops in the nation for musical education.

The causes are many, and chief among them is a willingness to be innovative.

Exhibit A: McKinley's auditorium during Monday morning.

Band Director Elizabeth Driskell directs the students, helping them warm up, before gesturing to a man standing off-stage.

As the sixth graders peer down at their sheet music, Driskell clears her throat before announcing, "This is Mr. Darryl Johnson II. He's the composer for this music."

The kids knew Johnson was visiting this day, but still a few look shocked, glancing from the composer's name on the sheet music to the man now standing before them.

Smiling, Johnson chats with the students before guiding them through a piece he's written called 'Farm and Seek.'

He then graciously takes questions from the curious middle schoolers.

Repeat this process twice more -- once with seventh graders, another with eighth -- and then add a late afternoon Q&A session, and you'll have a general idea of Johnson's day at McKinley.

The meeting is a rare treat for the students, as Driskell explains the last composer on campus visited four years ago, and had a Cedar Rapids connection.

Prior to the start of the school year, Johnson, a resident of Los Angeles, had never stepped foot in the Hawkeye state.

Now, he proudly tells students he's ridden a tractor and stepped foot in a cornfield (however, he has yet to catch a whiff of Crunch Berries produced by Quaker Oats).

Still, Johnson contends his proudest moment is in McKinley's auditorium, where he heard 'Farm and Seek' played for the first time by a band.

For Johnson, in the midst of a school tour, the meaning of music is something he wants to instill in students.

"We are going to drive to music, walk to music, work to music, marry to music, die to music," said Johnson. "Music will be a part of everything that we do, and so to the degree that students are able to understand and appreciate music is to the degree that they'll be able to understand and appreciate life."

Driskell said she would love to bring composers in more often, and particularly appreciated Johnson's energy, saying students really benefited from the interaction.

"Seeing that, you know, there's someone who can make a living doing this and have fun and follow their passion," said Driskell, "I'm hoping that maybe inspires some of them to think about, 'Oh, OK, I can keep doing this and keep trying.'"

The students' work will culminate in a spring concert at McKinley's auditorium, beginning on May 9 at 6:30 p.m. The middle schoolers will be playing some of Johnson's work, including the sixth graders unveiling 'Farm and Seek' formally.

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