Music Teacher Feature: Eric Sayre

by Luke Taylor, Minnesota Public Radio
May 6, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — Classical MPR's Teacher Feature highlights the lives and work of music teachers throughout Minnesota. This week, however, we go a bit further afield:

Eric Sayre
Executive Director
Guyana Lutheran Music Academy
New Amsterdam, Guyana

Where did you go to college?

I attended St. Olaf College (class of 2010), where their motto "Ideals to Action" really attracted me. I realized after graduating, that if I couldn't find an opportunity that fit my goals, I would have to create that opportunity for myself. St. Olaf provided me with the tools and support to make that dream a reality.

How did you first get involved in teaching music in Guyana?

I was first told about teaching in Guyana by a man by the name of Dr. Erv Janssen. He is a member of Fellowship Lutheran Church in Tulsa, Okla., where they have been leading short-term mission trips to Guyana in construction, medical, literacy and more since 1995. He came and spoke to my senior music education class at St. Olaf College to see if anyone was interested in going down and teaching music.

At the end of the presentation, I had signed up (pending my mother's approval, or course). I then excitedly went back to my room, where my roommate, Michael Murchison, was napping. I woke him up, told him what he and I were doing next year, and within the evening we had both committed to go.

Are you still teaching anywhere in Minnesota?

Even though our school in Guyana doesn't officially open until September 1, 2014, I took this academic year off to coordinate the development of our Minnesota-based nonprofit organization, our partnership in Guyana, the hiring of our teachers, the acquisition of our instruments, and the design of our curriculum. Last year, I taught band at Pillsbury Elementary and at Southwest High School, and jazz band at South High School, all Minneapolis Public Schools.

Tell us about Guyana Lutheran Music Academy.

The Guyana Lutheran Music Academy (GLMA) is an outgrowth of my trip to Guyana in 2011, when I spent five months with my St. Olaf College roommate, Michael Murchison, teaching vocal and instrumental music to citizens in Guyana through the support of the Lutheran church. Guyana is the third-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with opportunities in music education almost nonexistent.

The school is located in New Amsterdam, a town of 30,000, where there is no access to music education. Thanks to the support of our donors in the States, we will be providing a complete set of instruments, including keyboards, guitars, drum sets, brass instruments, string instruments, and supplies for vocal and general music. A team of three to four teachers will staff the school for 10 months each year. The school opens Sept. 1, 2014, and it will teach instrumental and vocal music to 240 children and adults.

Where do you see music education fitting into the broader educational spectrum? How does it help or enhance other curricular areas?

Many ask me, if Guyana is the third-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, why are you bringing something as frivolous as music? I answer them with this:

Countless studies show that music positively impacts brain development, social and interpersonal experiences, self-esteem, self-confidence, and impulse control, all contributing to healthy growth and development, especially for children and families who are experiencing marginal resources. Can you tell I've answered this before? We teach so much more than music!

In what ways do you try to encourage your students to appreciate and participate in music?

I encourage my students to participate in music by rewarding deep investment on their part with great rewards. The feeling after a great rehearsal, the emotion of a last performance, even getting through line 25 in their beginner method book, all add to their reward.

I strive to make my rehearsals engaging at all levels of skill, welcoming and safe to all backgrounds, contextually and culturally relevant, and meaningful beyond our walls. The skills we learn in music go way beyond our instruments, and the relationships and communities we create can last forever.

Do you have a story of an experience where music education made a difference in a student's life?

While teaching keyboard in New Amsterdam, Guyana, I had two students around the ages of 12 and 8, brother and sister, Dimitry and Denicia. They were very hard workers, asked great questions, and they always showed up on time! (Something that is very challenging for Guyanese citizens.)

At the end of our two-and-a-half months together, we had a chance to meet Dimitry and Denicia's parents. I was so excited to tell them what great students they had raised, but instead, their mother stormed up to me and asked, "What have you been teaching my children?!"

I immediately stopped smiling, for fear that this was perhaps my first big cultural misstep. She immediately laughed, and told me that she has never seen Dimitry act this way. "He wakes up early to help me with chores, stays up late with his sister helping her with homework, and Denicia is the same way." Now asking me, "Did you teach them that?" I replied, "I thought you had taught them that!"

It turns out, even in short exposures, music education can enact change on a number of levels, and in a variety of settings.

Does the curriculum at GLMA combine classical music as well as African and Caribbean rhythms and music systems?

We will be teaching music that is culturally and contextually relevant to Guyana. This includes Western notation and theory, but also includes folk music of Guyana itself. Due to the British colonization of the region, Guyanese folk music has a complex and difficult history. We are partnering with a Guyanese organization called the Harpy Eagle Music Foundation, which is dedicated to documenting and sharing native Guyanese folk music. This group will help us design our curriculum in a way that is culturally strengthening for the community, yet is still relevant for our students.

What specific challenges do you face as a music teacher in Guyana?

Similar to our country, there is a wide range of appreciation for music education. Many believe it is a pursuit only for children, and many believe it is secondary to "academic subjects." It is also challenging to teach in a new culture. Music is so contextualized that if I am not observing and learning more than I am teaching, I will be irrelevant. Participation in music in churches, at schools, and in homes is relatively different, with a much stronger emphasis on ear development and rote teaching.

How has your experience in music education in Minnesota (both as a student and as an educator) helped you in your work in Guyana?

It has been engrained in me that as a music teacher, I must constantly be learning in my own right. Teaching abroad is the same idea. Playing in various groups around the Twin Cities prepared me for the ear playing that happens here. Teaching in Guyana was actually my first solo teaching experience after completing my student teaching at Columbia Heights Middle School and at South High School in Minneapolis. So I guess I was bathed in fire a bit!

Along similar lines, were there certain things in Guyana you found yourself unprepared for when you arrived? How did you bring yourself up to speed in those areas?

I actually felt very prepared professionally (thanks St. Olaf!), but there were other living conditions that took time to get adjusted to. I had never dealt with such constant heat (80 to 95°F) and humidity (60 to 100%), the transportation is fast — sometimes scary fast — and the Guyanese Creole language is still just creeping its way into my ear.

It is also very interesting to be in the cultural minority for an extended period of time. Being a white male from Minnesota, I think this was a very important experience for me to have. Race and gender issues are still so prevalent in our country, but it is hard for those in the "majority" to understand because they don't experience it. Getting just a taste of what it means to be in the minority in Guyana really opened my eyes to the institutionalized issues of racism and sexism in the States. I have heard these issues described as a moving walkway — if you are not consciously walking in the opposite direction, you are unconsciously perpetuating the system that supports it.

At the end of each day, what keeps you motivated about teaching in Guyana, and what keeps you coming back for more?

To me, my work feels urgent. I see the potential for musical growth in communities in Guyana, as well as the potential for empathy and global understanding for our friends and family back home as urgent. The sooner these things happen, in my opinion, the closer we will be to closing the poverty gap around the world, whether it be one volunteer or organization at a time, or an entire political movement. Thinking bigger than myself has always guided me to find greater meaning in life.

What could Minnesotans learn about music — and perhaps more broadly, about other areas of learning and life — from the Guyanese people you encounter in your work?

I think learning about a new culture, whether it be of more or less means, really puts your own culture and expectations into perspective.

Musically, Guyanese musicians have challenged me to strengthened my aural skills, specifically my confidence in improvised chordal accompaniment to sung melodies. We could also learn a lot about the aural tradition of sharing music without recordings or written music.

Culturally, there is so much to say. Seeing how influential the United States economy is on this country is devastating. Understanding the role I play in that as an average consumer is alarming. While in Guyana I have learned to live a simpler life, to be thankful for sun, rain, and strong breezes. I have learned what advantages I had growing up in a middle-class family in the Midwest, and what responsibilities to the rest of the world come with that privilege.

If you were to help program a day of music at Classical MPR, what is a piece of music you'd play in the morning? What piece of music would you play in the evening? And what is it about these pieces that make them a couple of your favorites?

For morning, Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium, arranged for band. This piece, which I was originally exposed to in a choir setting, really introduced me to my musical imagination. It captures the purity, simplicity and innocence that I love in music. I have performed and conducted it with many groups, and it has always led to an emotionally charged performance. I chose the band arrangement because of the great memories I have from working on this piece with my former band at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.

Winchester Cathedral Choir - O Magnum Mysterium

For evening, Appalachian Spring Suite, original 13-piece instrumentation, by Aaron Copland. Appalachian Spring Suite to me is reminiscent of a simpler time in the United States. While living in Guyana, I have been fortunate to experience a much simpler way of living, free from the many complications and so-called conveniences of the States. This piece has been my sort of "theme song" for my spirit while I live in New Amsterdam, Guyana. Simple and pure, wide open spaces, and lots of time, this piece really speaks to me across borders.

Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland performed by Perspectives Ensemble


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