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African American music teacher makes a difference

| Monday, Feb. 25, 2008

For Ricardo L. Hayden Jr., 31, race isn't a black-or-white issue.

Hayden, the band director at Knoch High School in the South Butler County School District, is proudly biracial. But he doesn't like to "make a big deal out of who I am" by bringing personal politics into the classroom for Black History month alone, he said.

Instead, Hayden weaves the stories and songs of revered black composers and jazz legends into music lessons, along with all the other musical histories that are part of his richly-blended heritage.

"I don't really feel that I fit a particular stereotype," Hayden said. "It's always been a kind of dream of mine that people could judge each other on who they are and not judge them by their appearance. I don't just pick one month or one particular week to do some special unit. I try to be that person every day."

Although Hayden's father, Ricardo L. Hayden Sr., who is black, was not a professional musician, he was the source of some great music - especially Earth, Wind and Fire, his son said.

"Every morning when he was getting ready for work, he'd have a record on or the radio playing," Hayden said.

His father's father, Stanley Hayden, was a member of doo-wop group, Alma Keys, and that side of the family always joked about being "Irish Indian," but couldn't say what tribe. Hayden was never clear on how true the story was, "but it's weird, because I do love Celtic music," he said, laughing.

Hayden's mother, Paula Hayden, who is white, has played the clarinet, saxophone and piano - just like her son does now. Her father, Larry Huss, played the accordion. Huss loved country-western music but every year around Christmas, things took a more Slavic turn. Huss would lead the family in a round of live music; Hayden and his mother played clarinet and saxophone, with a little piano.

The music would start with traditional carols, but then Huss would break into a feverish polka. That was how Hayden learned to improvise: by trying to keep up with his grandpa, he said.

Today, Hayden teaches about 125 kids in the sixth grade, seventh and eighth grade bands, and about 100 high school students in musical groups, including the concert band, marching band, pit orchestra and high school jazz ensemble - all in about 60 hours each week, including show rehearsals, performances and traveling for honors band events, he said.

Hayden is about to start a middle school jazz ensemble, and also offers a music theory class for older high school students.

He graduated from Highlands High School in 1995 and earned his bachelor's degree in music education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2000.

Hayden started teaching at South Butler this fall. Before that, he taught in Highlands for five years, stepping into the shoes of his musical mentor, veteran middle school band leader Louis Pisani.

In Hayden's spare time, he performs with local groups, including the jazz GRT Trio and The Gibbons Big Band from the Apollo area. He also recently started playing with a cover band called ReCover, which plays hits by everyone from Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder to Maroon 5.

Hayden tries to use a variety of music, as well as cultural reference points, to keep up with his students.

Most of them are white, but that has rarely presented any problem in how they relate to him, he said.

"I think right at the beginning it may affect the dynamic, but I think once the students get to know you and see you're teaching the subject for the right reasons and it's coming from the heart, that dynamic goes away," Hayden said.

Because they're immersed in every kind of pop culture, Hayden's students see him and the rest of their world through a multi-cultural lens anyway, he said.

Sometimes, his knowledge of country music impresses them - and sometimes, their knowledge of rap and hip-hop impresses him.

When Hayden chooses music to perform, he picks things he thinks the whole school community will enjoy, as well as pieces that are educational.

His recent historical picks included "The Last Battle," a concert band piece about the last battle of the Civil War, and "An American Elegy," musical mourning about the April, 1999, shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

He also picks things that teach his students where their favorite music came from.

Hayden highlights black composers and virtuosos like Duke Ellington and Muddy Waters.

"It's really eye-opening for them to realize that if it wasn't because of some of those pioneers of jazz and blues - like Muddy Waters - if it wasn't for him, a lot of the music they listen to today, they wouldn't have. You can just see the 'A-ha!' look on their faces."

That "A-ha!" look is what fuels Hayden's fire - and his curriculum , he said.

"Every time February comes up, I think maybe I should make a more concerted effort to specifically do a unit - but I don't want the kids to think I do it just because I'm a black person," Hayden said. "I wouldn't want them to think that the only reason I'm doing it is, 'You have to respect me and understand where I come from.' I just want them to respect me because I am their teacher. That's it."

Additional Information:

Ricardo L. Hayden Jr., 31, of Natrona Heights

Family: Mother, Paula Hayden, 49; father, Ricardo L. Hayden Sr., 52

Favorite thing about the Valley: 'I think that it is a true microcosm of the melting pot that is America. If you study the history of the Valley, a lot of people that came across on the boat settled in this area, because of the rivers and that kind of thing. You have all types of people in this community.'

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