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MUSICIAN JOE CRAVEN SHOWS STUDENTS THAT ANYTHING CAN BE ART

Joe Craven shows Ariel Guterrez-Elstad, a sixth grader from Driftwood Grade School, how to play a violin for the first time. (The Pilot/Leah Weissman).
Joe Craven shows Ariel Guterrez-Elstad, a sixth grader from Driftwood Grade School, how to play a violin for the first time. (The Pilot/Leah Weissman).

By Leah Weissman

Pilot staff writer

A shoestring is a musical instrument. Don't believe it? Untie your shoe, hold the shoestring taut, and pluck at it like an upright bass. Get the rhythm going, and add some percussion by thumping the bottom of a trash can or shaking a cup full of dried corn kernels like a maraca.

"You have to give yourself opportunity to be playful, which leads to discovery," Joe Craven, self proclaimed arts activist, said. "And discovery is about looking at something, and seeing the same thing as everyone else, but thinking something different."

An eclectic musician who can coax a folk tune out of a tin can banjo – otherwise known as a "canjo" – Craven has played with greats such as Jerry Garcia, and is continuously exploring new forms of music, from bluegrass to swing, with his objects-turned-instruments.

"I'm lucky in that I had no formal music training," he said. "It allowed me to play with sounds and objects and learn to express myself.

"We're rhythmic beings. We can't help ourselves," Craven added. "When I was 13, I heard Jimmy Hendrix play and wanted to go out immediately and get a guitar and amplifier the size of my mom's refrigerator – that's when I realized there was magic in music."

As a gift to those searching for their creative side and ultimately their "voice," Craven has spent the last seven years traveling the world and sharing his devotion to the arts through outreach workshops, or what he refers to as "playshops."

With a little bit of humor and a whole lot of encouragement to let the imagination run wild, Craven's mission for his audiences is to transform the world and all its sounds and objects – such as the "tsh-tsh-tsssssh" of a sprinkler – into music.

"What I want to do is empower people to find purpose in life through art," Craven said. "If we don't have judgement, then our confidence builds, and that's what these playshops are about – for kids to validate themselves and have the opportunity to be creative."

Standing on stage Wednesday in front of about 180 Driftwood Grade School and Blanco Junior High School students in the Port Orford Community Center, Craven opened children's eyes to the world of discovery and expression. Holding up a metal cake pan, he asked students what they though it was. An umbrella, hat, and giant doughnut maker were a few of the offered guesses.

"You are all right," he said. "The more ways you see something, the more potential you see in yourself," Craven told the students. "Sometimes forgetting the name of things is, in fact, the best way to see things."

He happened to the cake pan as a drum, and after a few minutes, the only thing louder than the metallic rat-a-tat-tat beat of Craven's hand slapping the metal, was the sound of 200 kids and teachers clapping their hands perfectly in time.

Throughout the entire playshop, Craven held up different common objects, asked the kids what they thought the objects were, and then showed what they could be. For example, by filling two telephone receivers with rice, he turned them into maracas. He even showed kids that they already had a musical instrument with them – the Velcro on their shoes.

For a few seconds, the scratching sound of Velcro strips being pulled apart filled the community center.

"Anyone can make music," he told his audience. To prove it, he picked a student from the audience who had never played a violin before, nor even held one, and showed her how to rub the bow back and forth over the strings to make the same sound. With his encouragement, he and the student walked around the room, stepping in time to the rhythm of her violin.

"When you are on the journey of discovery, don't be worried about people and their shadowy opinion," he sang to the audience. "Find your voice in this world through art, whether it's music, painting, drawing ... anything."

Playing in front of all her peers and concentrating on the swinging motion of her arm, the student couldn't help letting a smile sneak across her lips when Craven started to jam along with her. Don't ever miss an opportunity to be playful.

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