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Faculty Spotlight: Matt Swanson and Lower School Music

As a young child, anything and everything Matt Swanson could get his hands on he would transform into a drum.  

“My nickname as a very young kid was “rhythm” because I was constantly banging on things,” he said. “I used to get in trouble for drumming on my desk in elementary school.” 
Fortunately, his parents channeled that energy into piano lessons for their son. Piano lessons then turned into the guitar and a variety of other instruments. By the time he reached high school, music was fully-integrated into Matt’s life. He pinpoints a summer as a camp counselor as the moment he knew music was his future. 

“I took kids on a hike to the beach and we started drumming on driftwood and buckets and anything else we could find,” Matt said. “Before we knew it, we were building marimbas and drums and putting on a performance for all the parents. I think this was my first indication that I had a “calling” to teach music.”

Born and raised in Seattle, Matt is in his first year as the Bush Lower School Music Teacher and Performing Arts Department Chair. Since the beginning of the fall, Matt has brought his extensive musical, educational, and artistic background for teaching and passion for students to Bush. 

“I love the openness and positivity of Lower School students,” Matt said. “They are so capable of opening up new doors, finding new passions and running with them, and considering ideas from a fresh perspective.”

A graduate of Whitman College (Walla, Walla, Washington), Matt received his Master in Education and Doctorate in Music from the University of Washington. Like music, education and the idea of teaching was something that was rooted in him from his family. 

“My grandmother, Marge, taught in a school for blind children in Seattle back in the 1940s and 50s,” he said. “I was able to interview her for a graduate school project, and it was fascinating to learn how some of the progressive educational trends and philosophies of her time had come full circle into my own training as a teacher.”

Matt’s journey to Bush is one grounded in global experiences. Before the birth of his two daughters, he and his wife, Erica, lived in Thailand for two years where they led multiple international service learning summer programs for high school students. He explained it was important to have these shared experiences with their children (now ages eight and ten). So Matt and Erica moved to Jeju Island in South Korea where they taught at St. Johnsbury Academy Jeju for two years. 

“The experience was everything we wanted it to be, full of wonderful adventures and connections,” Matt said. 

Coming back to the United States, Matt explained one of the main appeals of applying to Bush was the emphasis on community – a word he is exploring in many different facets with students this academic year. 

“My primary goal is to immerse students in the doing of music, maximizing active time singing, playing instruments, creating musical ideas, and performing,” he said. “This fosters a culture where students begin to really see themselves as musicians, which in turn motivates them to further develop their skills.”

Another main attraction to Bush was the K-12 aspect, something Matt described as unique in the independent school area. This academic year, one avenue he’s exploring is cross-divisional collaboration and peer-to-peer learning. Matt’s vision is a “visiting artist” program where Upper School musicians visit Lower School classes to perform and discuss their process as artists.

“Hopefully this can be a beginning to even greater musical collaboration between different age groups at the school,” he said. 

While Matt won’t go down the road of picking a favorite musician or  genre–he’s played in groups ranging from Bluegrass to Rock to Electronica— his love of learning from various artists is something he wants to imprint on Bush students. 

“Another central goal is to engage students with a huge diversity of musical genres, artists, traditions, and sonic possibilities,” he said. “This allows them to honor and appreciate the world of music that surrounds them, and prepares them to participate in a wide variety of opportunities down the road.”

Matt, who describes music as “the best thing that humans have ever invented” said it’s the moments when a student takes a risk to sing a solo or try a new instrument part or contribute a creative idea to a class composition, and display courage, are driving factors to what keeps him going. 

“In our society there’s this binary notion that you’re either musical or non-musical, and I constantly am working against this,” he said. “I love seeing kids counter this narrative, volunteering to try new things even when the spotlight is on, or even when they’re not one hundred percent confident. The courage to be musical starts with the courage to try.”
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