Inda Eaton and Nancy Atlas Bring ‘Ideas’

A study proram that not only encourages creativity but dovetails with Wyoming core curriculum standards.
Inda Eaton, left, and Nancy Atlas, on guitar, were joined at their Casper shows by Jen DePaolo of the Wyoming Symphony Orchestra.

    Early this month, Inda Eaton, a musician with roots in the West who now lives in Springs, sat on a classroom floor among a circle of fourth-graders in Casper, Wyo., talking about the song they had written with her during the school year, which was slated for an official debut later in the week.

    Through a program she calls Ideas to Inspire, Ms. Eaton, a Casper native, has been working with children in the Natrona County School District for several years, and has developed a study program that not only encourages creativity but dovetails with Wyoming core curriculum standards.

    The school visit was just part of Ms. Eaton’s agenda: She had gathered together a group of musicians for a western mini-tour, “The Trails Converge,” for several performances in Casper.

    Besides two members of her regular band, Jeffrey Smith of Milwaukee and Curt Mychael of Los Angeles, there was another East Hampton import: Nancy Atlas, a Montauker whose musical endeavors are well known here.

    Beginning last August at the start of the school year, Ms. Eaton and Mr. Smith, a drummer, along with occasional collaborators, had helped the Casper students create original songs on the theme “our place in this world.” During five week-long visits to classes at three schools, the pair helped the children home in on an added concept, narrower but related — something having to do with finishing their elementary school years and heading to middle school in the fall.

    Transitions were the theme for the students at Oregon Trail Elementary School, who chose “Our Place in This World” for the name of their song.

    At Park Elementary School, the song, “Here I Am at Park,” was inspired by the idea of collective memories. And at Sagewood Elementary, discussion of rites of passage inspired the songwriting efforts that resulted in “Life in the World is Great.”

    The musicians introduced different instruments — electric and acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and other percussion — allowing students to try them out and learn about their uses and differences. They taught about song structure, melodies, tempo, and beats, and held brainstorming sessions before forming writing groups to generate key words and develop song ideas. The children learned about music notation and multi-track recording before classroom recording sessions, using professional equipment for a final recording with instruments and vocals.

    Under Mr. Smith’s supervision, some students worked with the University of Wyoming’s technical education department to build their own “cajons,” wooden-box Latin percussion instruments, and formed a drum corps.

    The entire process was documented in photos and video. Now, with Ms. Eaton’s final visit as the school year drew to a close, the students were clamoring to see the results.

    They had to wait, she told them, until an Ideas to Inspire conference planned for later in the week, to be held at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper — a “story party,” as she described it.

    During a daylong field trip, all the children from the three schools came together for the first time, circulating through different activities highlighting aspects of storytelling. Ms. Eaton presented a workshop on the oral tradition, using the museum’s westward migration exhibits as a theme. Mr. Smith and Mr. Mychael, a bass player, demonstrated how sound and rhythm can relay a story or feeling, even without words.

    Ms. Atlas, a graphic artist as well as a musician, and the author and illustrator of a children’s book called “Rock Star Pigeon,” discussed the use of signs and symbols, working with students to design a logo representing their town and part of the west.

    Educators from the Casper Mountain Science School touched on the theme of hypothesis and conclusion, while a presentation by Paul Taylor, an Australian storyteller who has also worked with Casper students through Discover, the district-wide enrichment program that sponsors Ms. Eaton’s visits, focused on myth and metaphor. A large Aboriginal-style mural created by Mr. Taylor with students, telling a tale about transition, was displayed on the center’s main wall.

    During a prior Wyoming visit, Ms. Eaton had worked with Sagewood Elementary School fifth graders for a week to create and record a school alma mater, “Sagewood Stars,” with the children performing on the string and woodwind instruments they had been learning to play. She also helped students at Mills Elementary School write a school song.

     Last year, while Mr. Taylor’s students created the mural and made didgeridoos, she piggybacked on the themes of native culture and migration to help students write “Wyoming People Dream.”

    The Ideas to Inspire, or “i2i” conference closed with a performance by the student cajon drum corps and the debut of the videos, created by Ms. Eaton’s partner, Annemarie McCoy of Springs, that documented each group’s yearlong creative process.

    The next night at halftime, during an indoor arena football league game with the Wyoming Cavalry team, the drum corps, dressed uniformly in i2i T-shirts, played percussion to the adult musicians’ rendition of the “Sagewood Stars” alma mater. To start the night, Ms. Eaton, Ms. Atlas, and Mr. Mychael sang the National Anthem in perfect harmony on the field.

    Two performances by the band in Casper drew enthusiastic audiences. Ms. Atlas, who had not been to Wyoming before, fit right in, it turned out, performing several original songs: one about the place in everyone’s life for a good pair of cowboy boots, and another that she wrote right in Casper about a “cowgirl’s heart.”

    Performance footage is online at Ms. Eaton’s website, indaeaton.com. The Casper students’ videos, and information about their projects, can be found at ideastoinspire.org.