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Monday, August 10, 2020

Teaching a world of music

Patrick Roulet plays his gyil from Ghana outside of the Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, April 14. // Photo by Chanel Retasket
Patrick Roulet plays his gyil from Ghana outside of the Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, April 14. // Photo by Chanel Retasket

Two floors below ground in the Performing Arts Center, soft music comes from behind every closed door and enveloped the hall. Professor Patrick Roulet’s office was no different. After he placed the mallets of his xylophone down, he made his way through the chaotic stockpile of instruments that filled the basement office.

The walls were filled with shelves lined with instruments he collected throughout his career. Some came from as far as Ghana, where he taught in 2006. He explained that his collection became too large for his office and pointed outside his door to where the instruments overflowed into the hall. The room looked more similar to a music shop than a professor’s office.

Born a band roadie

Roulet began his love affair with music as roadie for his dad’s jazz band.

When the band wasn’t playing at clubs or bars, Roulet went along and listened to them play. He recalled spending Friday nights at a pizza joint where the band had a weekly gig.

“The one thing [my dad] taught me was how to pack up the drums. That was my job,” Roulet said.

The perks of being with a band intrigued him as a child. No matter where he went, if he said he was with the band people treated him differently, Roulet said with a grin.

In the fourth grade, Roulet began to play the snare drum. Before high school he moved on to the marimba and started taking lessons, Roulet said.

Roulet took his first formal marimba lessons from the principal percussionist of the Air Force band who lived just a few blocks from Roulet’s childhood house in Virginia, Roulet said.

After high school graduation, Roulet said he was choosing between three very different career options: becoming an engineer to design cars, studying business or continuing his passion for music.

He was committed to pursuing business until a meeting with a college counselor. The counselor outlined the requirements to get into business school, and before the door could close behind him, Roulet changed his mind.

Knowing that pursuing music would not be an easy task, Roulet told himself that he had to at least try, and if it didn’t work out it would be okay.

“I didn’t want to look back and think, ‘What if I went for it?’” Roulet said.

Today he still has, and sometimes uses, his first set of drums, a sparkly blue set, he said.

“I thought it was really cool at the time, and then for a while the blue sparkle was not very cool color to have. Now it is actually cool again, it’s so retro,” Roulet said with a laugh.

Patrick Roulet demonstrates a song on his xylophone. // Photo by Christina Becker
Patrick Roulet demonstrates a song on his xylophone. // Photo by Christina Becker

A traveling band

It was Roulet’s passion for non-Western percussion music that lead him to travel to Ghana in 2006, he said.

After speaking to a colleague at Eastern Washington University who returned from teaching in Ghana, Roulet was hooked on the idea of going, he said.

Roulet spent two weeks teaching at the University of Ghana. He learned to appreciate the resources he has while teaching in the U.S., Roulet said.

“There is a tendency in higher education to feel as though we don’t have enough [resources],” he said.

The realities of teaching in Ghana were much different than the realities faced here. For example, classes and rehearsals were held outdoors, Roulet said.

“They couldn’t dream of what we have here,” Roulet said while shaking his head. “That’s when it hit me: it isn’t about things and stuff, it is about personal connections.”

To Roulet, music is so much more than pretty sounds; it is a tool for teaching people about the human experience throughout history, he said.

“Opening our ears to music from around the world allows us to understand what people are like,” Roulet said.

Music can show us what people are feeling, and shows how they deal with the experiences that life throws at them. Music goes beyond intellect, it reaches emotion, Roulet said.

“Listening to music is like a history lesson; it’s like the news,” Roulet said.

Roulet hopes that by taking his class, students will be inspired to indulge their curiosity about music and culture and go seek out the music, he said.

From the classroom and beyond

Roulet’s interest in music goes beyond learning how to play a variety of different instruments. He is curious about how music connects people from different cultures around the world, he said.

Western graduate Kendra McLean recalled Roulet’s teaching style and how he focused on expanding the students’ minds by teaching them how to find their own knowledge.

“He was always thinking about the student and what would be most beneficial for them,” McLean said.

McLean explained that Roulet would assign his students to their own concerto. A concerto is ideal for students to perform, because it is composed for a soloist. Instead of assigning each student a specific piece of music, Roulet allowed his students to choose one for themselves.

Another former student of Roulet’s, Mike Bajuk, said Roulet was the kind of teacher that really listened to his students and tried to accommodate their interests.

For Roulet, music is a key part of children’s education because it works the brain in so many ways, including listening, writing and creating, he said.

Roulet’s lessons were filled with interesting ideas and exercises, Bajuk said in an email.

One lesson in particular stood out to him, Bajuk said. Musicians often work with a metronome to work on keeping time, and Bajuk was having trouble doing so. To help him develop his internal metronome, Roulet had Bajuk close his eyes and tell him when he thought a minute had passed.

Even beyond the classroom Roulet continues to mentor his students, McLean said.

Years after McLean was studying under Roulet in the 1990s, he continues to help her with her career, she said.

“Now, as I am looking into careers, he is writing me letters of recommendation and helping me with my resume,” McLean said.

Opportunities with music go far beyond education and Roulet taught his students how to seek out those opportunities, McLean said.

Music can give a child a passion, the way it gave Roulet one, he added.

These drums are part of Patrick Roulet's instrument collection; one drum from the 1940's band Tiny Meeker's German Band and three from Ghana. // Photo by Chrisitna Becker
These drums are part of Patrick Roulet’s instrument collection; one drum from the 1940’s band Tiny Meeker’s German Band and three from Ghana. // Photo by Christina Becker

Making it big

The music business is understandably challenging to become successful in, but Roulet didn’t want to have any regrets when he looked back on his life’s career, he said.

At this point in his career he has worn many hats. He’s been a freelance percussionist in major symphonies, he’s published musical arrangements for marimba, and has been teacher and collaborating artist for a dance company, Roulet said.

From 1994 to 2004 Roulet was a freelance percussionist. For three of those years he was regularly called to fill in and sight read with the Seattle Symphony, he said. Sometimes he was reading a piece for the first time during the performance, he said.

“It was a bit stressful, you have to come in and be on your game and you have to nail it,” Roulet said.

One of his most memorable experience with the symphony was playing Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, he said. There’s a section of the last movement that is famous to percussionists.

“It is huge, it is loud, it is the kind of part that percussionists live for. I just remember thinking after that part, ‘I don’t have to play music again ever, I’ve arrived,” Roulet said.

Although he called his time as a freelancer a great experience, Roulet said that is was also a tenuous lifestyle and he yearned for something more stable. When it presented itself, Roulet took the opportunity to teach.

Roulet has also arranged a number of music books for beginning marimba players, from The Beatles to church hymns to the Tetris theme, Roulet said.

Patrick Roulet collects instruments.  The jawbone of a donkey can be played by lightly beating the side of it's skull.  // Photo by Chanel Retasket
Patrick Roulet collects instruments. The jawbone of a donkey can be played by lightly beating the side of it’s skull. // Photo by Chanel Retasket

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