Talk It Out - Debra Watson of The Smokin' Aces - via phone on November 10, 2015
Talk It Out: A Musician is an Artist No Matter the Venue
I had the great pleasure to connect with another soulful artist for Talk It Out! Debra Watson is an Austin and Los Angeles based blues-rockabilly artist who, in addition to playing local jazz and swing clubs, enjoys an equally gratifying parallel career as a middle school art teacher. What I find most interesting about her Texas sass is that she not only displays it proudly as a rocker but she irreverently calls upon her talents while educating youth, about 20% at-risk. In other words, what do Matisse and jazz have in common? A beat, says Debra Watson…groove, color and a beat. I could not dig this more.
Debra Watson: I wanted to share something about the first day of school that I do every year. When the kids are in the room I ask them, “How many of you feel like you’re different?” They look at me and I raise my hand. And then slowly they all raise their hands. I say, “That’s because we’re artists and we are different! And how cool is that?” And that’s how I start of the very first day of school.
Jodi Leib: Have you ever had one particular student who you felt was so troubled that you referred him or her to the school counselor?
Debra Watson: Oh, lots. Lots. I once had a student that was constantly absent. And I don’t think he always had lunch money. So I started keeping some juice in my refrigerator. I was worried about him and so I did refer him to a counselor and I did talk to the counselors. They’re very loving at my school. I’m very blessed to have great counselors, a great principal, and great assistant principals that I go and talk to. They know I’m like a mother hen. I go and talk about students all the time because when you teach art it’s like they let their hair down. I developed a relationship with the parent, and I started telling her some of my concerns. The mom had been in a really bad car accident and was in the hospital and the kids were going back and forth with another relative. He was constantly late to school and very bright…and so I stayed on it. The counselor stayed on it.
My sister had this old guitar that she was thinking about giving away to Good Will. She said, “I bet you might have a student who could use it.” And I said, “Oh, boy do I have a student.” So I gave this particular student a guitar. It wasn’t like he started playing or anything but that somebody thought he was that important to give him this guitar. And then unfortunately he moved. But then he came back a year later and snuck out of lunch early and came into my art room. When I saw him I started screaming for joy because I hadn’t seen him in so long and I hugged him and he hugged me and I said, “I can’t believe you’re back!” We only got to talk briefly because the bell rang but it was so cool that he had been gone for a year and he came back and found me and let me know he was okay. Because he knew. I even wrote a letter to his new address so he would get it when he got there but he didn’t write me. I said, “Keep me posted, how’s your new school…”
I think for so many kids that if there’s one teacher who notices what they’re going through and talks to them and is there to listen, I really think it can make a huge difference in their lives. I have a whole list of kids. I stay after school so much I can’t even tell you. When I stay after school, the kids are working on their projects, we just listen to music, and we talk. And kids – they want to tell you everything and I always have to be cautious and careful in how I respond. If I’m concerned, and in many cases I have been, I’ve definitely gone and talked to a school counselor. In past years kids have come to me when someone has said the word “suicide” or was thought to be cutting, or something like that. The kids will actually come and tell me, which is great because then I can try to get that kid help. Sometimes they will tell me about somebody who I’m not even teaching.
Jodi Leib: Do you find there are enough federal and state resources put into school counseling programs to help these kids?
Debra Watson: I’ve been at different schools. I was at a school many years ago where the principal basically just sent all the troubled kids to me because she thought the counselor was ineffective. But at the school where I currently teach I think the counselors are pretty awesome. They really care about the kids. The problem is you have so many kids, and there are so few tax dollars and there is only so much you can do. I am a part-time teacher and it’s been very hard on me. They took my benefits away three years ago and then this year they added another class and took my planning time away obviously because of budget cuts. I already work two to four hours of overtime every day, because my kids are just that important to me.
Jodi Leib: It is so ironic because it sounds like from what I’m hearing is that you are one of the teachers that students feel they can relate to, and they can count on, that they can confide in, because I do think art opens people up like you said. I do think that art is a bridge builder, and I think if more people tapped into their own creativity there would be a lot less frustration, a lot less violence in the world. They sense that you’re open yet you don’t have training as an art therapist. You’re not a school counselor but yet you’re catapulted into this role just by – and I don’t want to say proximity because that’s not really the right word – but you seem to embody this role of artist/healer and the kids project some sort of comfort onto you and vice versa. So in many ways you’re blessed with the ability to actually make a difference in people’s lives but yet that is often not what is revered in our school infrastructure. And in my opinion, that is exactly why so many kids are slipping through the cracks. They’re misunderstood and they often don’t relate to authority figures. Inevitably there are a lot of kids who do not have an open ear from faculty due to school size, legal liabilities, interoffice politics or status quo inhibitions, and maybe they’ve cut art classes in their school, and kids feel very lost. One of the big problems facing our future is the very crux of what you’re talking about where teachers who do this work are not supported to the extent that they may not be able to afford to be in a position to be these kinds of teachers. We just have the whole system really backwards in a lot of ways.
Debra Watson: Once again I go back to this incredible school where I’m at. There’s not a teacher at the school where I teach that doesn’t love their students. They’re very kind, and I know there are other teachers that go beyond the call of duty besides me. But everybody in Texas, and I’m sure across the United States, is talking about their State Assessment Testing. Teachers have to spend so much of the time preparing for these assessment tests, and sometimes kids can slip through the cracks, but once again, I think [the best environment is] a school that works as a school where everybody is a team member.
I’ve taught at a lot of schools. I’ve taught at some great schools and I’ve taught at some schools that aren’t so great. The school that I’m at now has a special class called Go Time, where we talk about bullying, and what is bullying, how it affects people, and how we can be kinder people. They do this talk once a week and it’s also an extra time to help kids who are failing their classes, where teachers can work with small groups. So our school is probably a very innovative school compared to many other schools, but I do wish that everybody in the legislature would spend a day in a teacher’s shoes and see what we go through and how exhausted we are. Then maybe they would give us more funding. I get tired of hearing all these things that are “teacher’s fault, teacher’s fault, teacher’s fault.” I think most teachers do the best they can. I’m sure there are some rotten eggs in teachers like there are in any segment of our society, but I think for the most part teachers really truly love their kids. We’re definitely not in it for money. It’s definitely the kids. They make the difference.
One day I came in to school – I had just lost my friend and I wasn’t feeling well – and I came in and all the way from the downstairs to upstairs in my room there were some kids that said, “Hi, Ms. Watson.” Just cheerful and bright eyed, “Hi, Ms. Watson.” I was just so happy and I told all my classes that day what a difference that had made – that I came in not feeling well, I came in feeling sad and this simple hello made a difference. I said, “Well you can do that for other people too.” And they listened. Kids listen. If you talk to them where they can hear it they listen.
Jodi Leib: Do you find that they listen as they’re making art? Are you able to communicate messages to them while they’re in a very open and receptive state such as while drawing or painting or creating something?
Debra Watson: The story I was just telling you about happened while my students were all gathered around me, and I was sharing a lesson with them. It was a real quiet time when they were all watching and learning something new. They were in that mode to really listen. Sometimes while they’re doing art I can communicate positive messages, but usually we’re so busy creating during those 45 minutes. My largest class has 30 students. Getting around to every child is a challenge.
Jodi Leib: How does this inform your own creativity and your own music? Does it make you a better musician to do this good work in the community?
Debra Watson: I think it all ties in together. When the kids first meet me I let them know I am a musician. One of the funny things is when I can’t hear them, I’ll make a joke. I’ll go, “Hey guys, remember, I’m an old rock n’ roll singer. You’ll have to speak a little louder. I’ve been on stage for years. My ears aren’t the same as yours.” I’ll kid about it and so it’s kind of funny to them. They’re constantly asking me, “Will you just start singing right now?” They want me to just break out in song. And sometimes I do. Sometimes my students actually come to hear me at my concerts, which is really cool. I just think that music and art and dance and writing all go to together. We talk about what is a composition. We talk about it in art and music and writing and dance and they start to get the idea of how they’re all related. I just think that any of the creative forces, any of the creative arts that the kids can involve themselves in makes them just a better, whole person. There was some study I just told the kids about this week. It said that kids who study art tend to be higher level thinkers. All the kids in the class went, “That’s me! I’m a high level thinker.” It was really cute. And then I said, “And there’s one more thing. They also tend to be kinder people.” And they all looked at me and each other. It made them smile really big.
Jodi Leib: And these are sixth graders?
Debra Watson: Yeah.
Jodi Leib: Wow. So they’re really on the cusp of forming their own identities.
Debra Watson: I remember sixth grade. The hormones are going up and down and you’re crying for no reason. I remember all that even though it’s a long time ago. I remember being in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade and having all these emotions inside and not really feeling like I could share with anyone. I’ll bring that up to the kids and I’ll say, “What you’re feeling is just normal. It’s part of life.”
I haven’t written any songs about my students, not yet. But I do think being a musician makes me freer in class. In one of our first lessons we were studying an artist named Stuart Davis and he talked a lot about how jazz is related to bold, bright colors. We’ve talked about Matisse and his cut-outs and I was demonstrating something so I started snapping my fingers. They looked at me and I was like, “Yeah, you can.” So they started snapping and I said, “Now that you have that groove and that beat, I want you to just walk with that same beat and snap your fingers as you walk back to your table and start doing your art.” So I do a lot of things like that. I’ve had them bring in their instruments if they play music and take a photograph of it and maybe incorporate their instrument into their work of art. It’s just all good and it all works together.
Jodi Leib: And you think it makes them better people in the long run?
Debra Watson: I think so. I think my kids tend to be sweeter and care about people. And if they do something that’s not so cool, they’re not proud of it. Sometimes kids can be badass and like, “I’m tough.” My students don’t feel that way. My students feel like, “Oh, I’ve got to be a better person.”
Jodi Leib: It’s so wonderful! How do you see your own life journey and your passion in life and what you’re passionate about? Is this your life’s work?
Debra Watson: I feel lucky that I’ve gotten to work in the arts. I am creative rich, cash poor, because my life has never been about money. As I get older I think I should have thought more about money when I was younger. I knew a long time ago that when I became an old lady in a rocking chair, I didn’t just want to sit there with no memories. I wanted to have memories and rich memories. So I’ve started to feel that I will definitely have plenty of memories. And I’m a late bloomer as far as the arts have developed in my life. I keep on discovering. Eventually when I retire from teaching I plan on going back to painting. I have to finish a couple of scripts. I would love to record a forth CD and a fifth CD. I really love nature, beauty, people, and all arts combined. I do not have many boring times in my life. I would not know what it’s like to be bored, because I have enjoyed the many riches given to me and the people who have affected my life, whether it’s my students or my musician friends that I am so blessed to get to work with both here and in Los Angeles, or the other many deep friendships I have. I think that by being an artist I hope that I am more open. I just feel blessed.
Jodi Leib: Thank you so much for sharing tonight.
Debra Watson: I am grateful you have so many great ideas and I’m just glad to be a part of it.
Jodi Leib: Thank you, Debra. It has always been my mission with Talk It Out to go beyond the music and into the very real lives of the musicians themselves – whether it’s their passions or simply how they are making a difference in the world, like you are every day. There is a principle of drama therapy that each of us should “Create our life as a work of art” and you are definitely doing that. You are a true leader in your community and an important influence in all your listeners’ lives. And your listeners are not just in nightclubs or on the car side of the radio – your audience of sixth graders has the privilege of listening to your life music every day.
Please visit www.debrawatson.net for more info including videos, photographs, music, press, and performance dates.