By Diana Bowley, Of the NEWS Staff - DEXTER - When things get a little tense in Chris Prickett's eighth-grade language arts classroom at Dexter Middle School, he grabs one of several stringed instruments displayed on the wall and starts strumming.It may be a bluegrass-style jingle about the fun of learning or a chord Prickett plays as pupils conjugate verbs. Whatever the tune, the teacher gets the attention of his pupils, who keep rhythm by tapping their feet or singing along with Prickett.
Prickett's unique integration of music into the classroom prompted the formation a few years ago of the Abbot Hill Ramblers, a stringed band comprises middle school and high school pupils that is sponsored in part by the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine. Today, there is so much interest shown by pupils for instruction on stringed instruments that Prickett has had to divide the participants into advanced and beginning groups.
"It's [the program] been very well received," said Prickett, a member of Evergreen, an acoustic band that plays melodies with a bluegrass flavor. "I think the rhythms [of bluegrass music] are easier to grasp and the instruments are user-friendly for the most part."
Pupils and parents alike say it is Prickett's approach that has created so much interest. "He tries to make his class a little fun for all," Mike Nokes, a band member and former pupil, said recently.
Nokes, now a freshman at Dexter Regional High School, enjoyed Prickett's novel approach to his instruction. The music actually made the subject a little easier to remember, Nokes said.
Carol Gallup of Dexter said her son became interested in the banjo after listening to Prickett play. "He's awesome," she said of Prickett. Gallup said the teacher's interaction with pupils is great because it makes learning fun for them.
Gallup's son, A.J., said he likely never would have tried playing an instrument if he hadn't heard Prickett play the banjo. "I wish the other teachers could use musical instruments [in the classroom]," he said.
Gallup and the beginning group of 22 players meet after school for practice every other Monday. They have not yet played for the public.
But the 14-member advanced group, which rehearses at 7 a.m. Fridays, has played at several events over the years, including Coffeehouse gigs, the Exeter Harvest Festival and a Bluegrass Music Association event. In addition to the stringed instrument players, the band is rounded out with a drummer and a piano player.
Both bands will play for the Dexter Middle School talent show Dec. 20 and the advanced group will open for Evergreen at a parent-teacher fund-raising event at 7 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Harmony School. Prickett said he hopes to record a compact disc before the freshmen in the group graduate from high school.
Seniors Sarah and Lindsay Turner both perform with the advanced group. Sarah, who plays guitar, said she was inspired by Prickett's playing the guitar in class. She plans to minor in music next year at the University of Maine.
Lindsay Turner and Claire Wyman, a sixth-grade pupil, play the mandolin in the band. Wyman experienced her first "field picking" when she participated in a bluegrass festival at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick.
According to Prickett, the stringed program at the school began about two years ago when schools in the region won a collaborative Century 21 grant. His request to purchase some stringed instruments for the school was approved. But there is still a need for more instruments. Prickett hopes that some day, every pupil who wants to play a stringed instrument will have one to take home to rehearse.
"There's a lot of young people interested and it's only going to grow," Prickett said.
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