On the last day of school Sheena Dhamsania was promised an album.
It didn’t come from a big band — no Elton John, no Grateful Dead — and the release date hadn’t been set yet. The artist hadn’t even kicked off his musical career. Still, it seemed important to thank his elementary school music teacher in some way, even if the promise may be a little far off.
“You get my first album free,” Mikey Klein, a fifth grader, wrote on Dhamsania’s whiteboard.
Klein is a member of the Growlin’ Grizzlies, the student rock band Dhamsania, Wilson Elementary School’s music teacher, has coached from the get go. The Grizzlies put on their first show at Teton Thai on June 11 and, on Friday, they played a goodbye-to-the-school-year show, celebrating the last day of school as students filed out the front doors.
Dhamsania’s role might sound a little Jack Black or “School of Rock”-esque, but unlike Black’s character, Dewey Finn, she isn’t interested in reliving her fast-living past with the students. She’s never out in the front, never center stage. For her it’s about giving them the tools — musical or otherwise — to get out and start their own bands on the weekends.
“The goal is that I’m out of the picture,” Dhamsania said. “I’m just kind of creating the space.”
And on the issue of space, Dhamsania’s classroom looks like it comes straight out of an aspiring elementary school musician’s dreams. There’s not a recorder in sight. A few guitars, a keyboard, a bass guitar, a disassembled PA system, and 20 or so djembes lined the walls. The musical menagerie suits the musician-turned-music-teacher who won Teton School District No. 1’s 2019 Teacher of the Year award.
The award-winning music teacher also works as a gigging musician, moonlighting as a singer in Canyon Kids and the bass player and singer in the country outlaw outfit, Risky Livers. After waving goodbye to students leaving the building for the summer and running to a district meeting, Dhamsania took the stage at The Wort Hotel for the first of a two-night performance with Canyon Kids.
It was a busy day but, for Dhamsania, it was all just part of the bigger picture. She sees commonalities between her roles as a teacher and as a performer.
“As a teacher, oftentimes you are a performer,” she said. “Every class I teach is a performance, and I want to keep my audience entertained, whether they’re 5- year-olds or 50-year-olds.”
No two days are the same for Dhamsania, who sings her lessons to her younger students and models what she’s teaching for all levels. On any given day, she might show her students how to hand drum on the djembes or pick through a few tunes on the ukulele, walk them through Apple’s music software, Garageband, or give them the tools to write — and sing — their own 12 bar blues songs. And while the subject matter might not always be the hurtin’ usually associated with the Mississippi Delta’s music (Dhamsania said it usually is focused on things like “little sisters being annoying”) it gives the kids in her classes a chance to express themselves and engage with the creative process: Something their teacher knows all too well.
“The best products come through the quality of process,” Dhamsania said, “so allowing these students to have a good quality and thorough process is a goal of mine as a teacher.”
Dhamsania first started learning that process in metro Detroit, where she grew up and was first introduced to Indian dance and rhythm by her family.
“I was obsessed,” she said.
Growing up wasn’t always easy. Dhamsania describes herself as a “tricky kid” with a bit of a defiant streak. But “rich experiences” with some of her teachers kept her on the straight and narrow, pursuing her musical passions. She remembered one teacher in particular, though her time in that classroom came a few years before her adolescent defiance kicked in. Her third grade teacher, Mrs. McDonald, had worked as a professional clown with “personality, passion and quirk.”
“She was this hilarious, subversive person,” Dhamsania said. “She was the first person to yell at me, and I’ll always remember that.”
She remembers that, of course, in a good way. It was teachers like McDonald who “were doing the good stuff that kept [her] on the right track.”
Dhamsania’s experience with music complemented her experience in elementary, middle and high school classrooms.
“When I say music saved my life, it’s quite literal,” she said. “It’s something that changed my life and put me on the track to have this purpose.”
That purpose won Dhamsania a scholarship to Michigan State University for bassoon — an instrument she called “the nerdiest ever” but pursued nonetheless for the love of classical competition — and landed her a teaching gig in Evanston and, about five years ago, her current job at Wilson Elementary. But even though she’s been there for a while, teaching her students how to play and think about music hasn’t become stale.
Whether singing to her students or coaching the Growlin’ Grizzlies through their first cover of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Dhamsania has stayed engaged both with her students and her craft. And, for the teacher of the year, that seems to be the key.
“When I come to work it really doesn’t feel like work,” she said, noting that it’s a daily process of figuring out how to create with her students or help a kid that’s been struggling.
“If you’re energized the ennui doesn’t set in,” she mused. “You let yourself stay wondrous.”