Tlingit musician Ed Littlefield is renowned for his work as a musician and percussionist, having played in symphonies, jazz orchestras and other professional groups in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Most recently, he came to Sitka to play in the Sitka Jazz Festival.
But those weren’t the only sound artists he made time for while he was here. He also spent a week teaching children at Keet Gooshi Heen how to tell traditional Tlingit stories through sound.
The 4th grade class has learned an English version of Raven and the Whale. It tells the story of trickster Raven who flies into the mouth of a whale to land some free food.
But musician Ed Littlefield is doing more than translating old stories for new ears. He’s teaching young students to tell stories in a new way.
“They will be able to tell the story through sound and so I call it a soundscape,” Littlefield said. “As the students are talking and speaking, they’re also doing sound and movement.”
Every action in the story is accompanied by a some kind of sound produced by the students. The sounds the kids make – whether they make them with their mouths or their bodies – have to fit the narrative somehow. That means a lot of time devoted to discovering new sounds.
Words still carry the story forward, so they have to be delivered with clarity and energy.
Littlefield’s residency at Keet is part of a multi-year partnership between the Sitka School District, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and the University of Alaska Juneau, that integrates Arts, Culture and Technology into teaching.
The residency was designed by teachers Jennifer Reid and Kirstin Karsunky. Karsunky said the project has taught her how to bring culture into the classroom effectively.
“We have our strengths in teaching and that’s something both of us could work on bringing into the classroom,” she said. “Ed just immediately popped into our heads. We’ve heard him doing awesome things in classrooms. He has the cultural background as well and that’s super important.”
Karsunky adds that integrating culture into her lessons is vital to the development of her students.
“It becomes bigger than a specific cultural activity,” she said. “It becomes something the kids can take with them, the respect.”
Reid says Littlefield has made her rethink the role sound and music can play in her lessons.
“I can think of things to music,” she said. “Using sound effects is another cool avenue for them to be able to retain things. Everything. Put everything to music. All of it!”
The kids are learning to think with their ears but Littlefield keeps the lessons active as his students learn to tell the Tlingit tale.
“They’re doing lots of moving and grooving and it’s helping them to learn the story,” she said. “My hope is that later they can tell the story with just the sounds and movements.”
But Littlefield says the lessons go beyond using sound to communicate. He’s teaching kids traditional ways to learn without the use of written words. Just their ears.