By Ken Martinson, Marching.com Founder
His face is known around the world as "Bob" the music teacher. His voice has inspired generations of children through songs such as "People In Your Neighborhood" and "One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other."
Yet even after 40 years as a cast member on Sesame Street, Bob McGrath talks about the importance of music in early childhood education with a freshness and enthusiasm one might display in a new career.
It's clear that Bob McGrath found his calling.
"Music education should absolutely have to be a part of every child's education," McGrath says passionately. "'No child left behind' is a handy slogan, but the only way a child is NOT going to be left behind is if music is incorporated as part of his education. I've noticed there's a distinct difference in kids that are involved in the arts. There's an alertness, a sharpness, just a joy of life."
McGrath was honored to ride in the 2009 Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade as part of the musical extravaganza presented by NAMM - the International Music Products Association, Music For All and Sesame Workshop. He sang from atop a colorful float while members of the Bands of America Honor Band accompanied him by playing a jazzy arrangement of the Sesame Street theme.
"The 300 kids playing in the BOA Honor Band are going to realize this was a life-changing experience," McGrath says. "It's going to stay with them their whole life. They've developed skills so they can continue playing whether they go into music as a profession or not."
McGrath is aware of the budget challenges some school music programs face, and he says it's unfortunate that music is often one of the first things to get cut.
"Though math, science and other core curriculum are tremendously important, there's something about a child getting involved in music that touches the imagination to a slightly different degree than some of the other subjects," McGrath says. "There's an old cliché that you can get an 85 or 90 on a math test and that's pretty good, but you don't play 85 or 90 percent of the notes right, or you'll be practicing!"
MUSIC ON SESAME STREET
McGrath's role on Sesame Street stretches back to the beginning, when the show first aired in 1969. He was one of the original four cast membersas Bobalong with Gordon, Susan and Mr. Hooper. Bob serves as the music teacher on the show and often interacts with Jim Henson's Muppet characters, such as Big Bird, Grover and Oscar the Grouch.
"Jim was very musical," McGrath recalls. "He said music is a part of everything we do. Like puppetry, music has an innate way of speaking to a worldwide audience in a way that reaches and touches the soul. And of course music does
McGrath says music has always been an important part of teaching the curriculum on Sesame Street, and he's pleased that the role of music goes beyond teaching numbers, letters and shapes.
"We've given kids the opportunity to hear fantastic world-class musicians. We've brought in musicians of every kind, from classical, pop and jazz, from Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma to Beyoncé. A lot of kids don't have the opportunity to hear that variety of music, especially classical music."
Before Sesame Street went on the air, producers had invested a full two years planning and researching material for the show.
"The research staff is just as active today as it was 42 years ago," McGrath says. "They determine what our goals for the year should be, and that changes from one generation to another. In fact, the writers will put at the top of their workbooks, 'the 40th experimental season of Sesame Street' ... and that's not a joke, that's truly what it is."
When the 40th anniversary season begins airing in November 2009, Sesame Street will once again reflect the changing demographics of its audience.
"Our audience has grown much younger," McGrath says. "In the early years we were geared toward pre-schoolfour, five and six-year-oldsand now we're almost geared toward ages zero to three."
The shift toward younger children is a result of the increased availability of educational programming. There are now dozens of networks and cable TV channels, unlike the handful that existed in 1969.
"By the time kids are four years old they've watched Sesame Street for two or three years, and they're moving on to other kinds of shows. By necessity, our writing is a bit different than it was," McGrath says, admitting that the "old-timers" are nostalgic about the great fun they had with the advanced topics of the earlier shows.
Anyone sharing McGrath's nostalgia can find early episodes on DVD. "Sesame Street Old School Volume 1: 1969-1974
" and "Sesame Street Old School Volume 2: 1974-1979
" include the first episode from each season along with classic songs, Muppet sketches and guest appearances. A comprehensive book has also been published, detailing the creation, successes and challenges of Sesame Street. "Street Gang: The Comprehensive History of Sesame Street
" by Michael Davis is now available in hardcover.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE STREET
While McGrath may be best known for his role on Sesame Street, he also maintains an active schedule writing books, recording CDs and performing concerts. He publishes a blog on his official website at
"I've done several thousand concerts over the last 40 years with symphony orchestras all over North America and Hawaii. I typically use about 50 or 60 kids in my program, both as singers and backup musicians," McGrath says.
McGrath works closely with music organizations such as NAMM - the International Music Products Association and MENC - the National Association for Music Education, which he cites as "incredible advocates" supporting music education for every child.
McGrath and his wife of 50 years, Anne, have five children and eight grandchildren. As a father and grandfather, he appreciates the positive impact music has had on his own family.
"Music requires an incredible amount of discipline and accuracy, and I think that skill carries over to anything that a child is going to do
whether he picks up a horn after he leaves high school or not," McGrath says. "That discipline is going to serve him well everywhere."
McGrath's love of music and his enthusiasm for teaching children is as real in person as it is on the stage or screen. Even the handshake at the end of this interview seemed to be full of sincerity and passion. Perhaps that's why his life work is sure to inspire yet another generation.
To learn more, visit www.bobmcgrath.com.
Photos by Marching.com.
Copyright 2009 Marching.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published or redistributed without permission.
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