K.C. Johnson instills the beat to local kids | AspenTimes.com

K.C. Johnson instills the beat to local kids

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen TimesRoaring Fork Valley music teacher K.C. Johnson rounds up his students for K.C.'s Guitar Jam at Steve's Guitars in Carbondale.

It hardly sounds like the stuff of a life-turning moment. But K.C. Johnson still looks back on the time, some 18 years ago, when he picked “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on his guitar for a group of special-needs children, as perhaps the defining incident of his music career.

“I tell you ” imagine a dozen special-needs kids watching you play guitar, sitting there with nothing but total appreciation and love. They glow and they emanate love,” said the 52-year-old midvalley resident. “I stumbled through ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ and I turned to Karen” ” Karen D’Attilo, the music teacher who had invited Johnson to perform ” “and said, ‘You call me anytime. I love this. I want to work with kids whenever I can.'”

Within a few years, Johnson found himself knee-deep in children. D’Attilo, who had founded the local Earthbeat Choir, a group of singing kids that specialized in John Denver tunes, notified Johnson that she was moving out of the valley. “Either I had to step up and become director, or Earthbeat Choir was going to close,” said Johnson. He put it to a vote of the Earthbeat Choir kids and their parents, who gave Johnson a big thumbs up.

For more than a decade, Johnson has led and expanded the Earthbeat Choir. The nonprofit organization now offers four week-long summer camps, one each in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Basalt and New Castle. Each week concludes with a recital, plus a bigger performing opportunity at a festival that corresponds geographically to each camp: Carbondale’s Mountain Fair, Glenwood’s Strawberry Days, Basalt’s River Days, and New Castle’s Burning Mountain Days. On occasion, the choir will venture out to even bigger stages ” for instance, the performance at the Million Mom March in Denver, where Johnson led his troops, in front of a crowd of 20,000, in a performance of the original song “Don’t Look the Other Way,” about the Columbine High School murders. In 1994 ” before Johnson became director, but with his involvement ” the Earthbeat Choir sang another original number, “The Fire Song,” at a memorial to the firefighters killed in the Storm King Fire outside of Glenwood. That performance was broadcast on a Denver TV station.

Johnson has also expanded his music tutelage outside of the Earthbeat Choir. For a dozen years he has been taking on guitar students for private lessons, and for the past three years he has gathered those budding guitarists for the K.C.’s Guitar Jam. This year’s Jam is set for Monday at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, where Johnson and some 15 aspiring guitar heroes will play the Beatles’ finger-picking classic “Blackbird,” original tunes written by Johnson and his students, and songs by the contemporary pop bands Green Day and the Fray.


Even though he participated in theater and choir as a kid in Walnut Creek, Calif., just east of Oakland, Johnson never imagined music as any sort of occupation.

“In northern California, the arts were great for a student. But as an adult, mom and dad said, ‘Get a real job,'” said Johnson. “It never occurred to me that I would have such a passion for the arts as an adult.”

Through his 20s, Johnson played ” rhythm guitar and back-up vocals ” in a California rock band. He recalls plowing his way through Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” as a rare time when he took on the lead singing chores, and as an example of the material the band played. Much more of his time, however, was devoted to his career in restaurants, as a waiter, manager and bartender.

In 1989, a roommate of Johnson’s died of AIDS, and Johnson wound up with an invitation to spend two weeks in Aspen to grieve and recover. He fell in love with the area, and the next year jumped at the chance to help open a restaurant, 72 Aspen, here.

That restaurant was extremely short-lived, and Johnson went looking for other food-industry employment. He decided to audition for the Crystal Palace, Aspen’s now defunct dinner theater. While waiting tables one night at a Basalt eatery, he saw a way to increase his odds of passing that audition. Karen D’Attilo and some of her Earthbeat Choir associates had just come in for dinner, after finishing an Earthbeat summer camp. Johnson couldn’t help but notice their glow ” “They had such great energy,” he said ” and two weeks later, Johnson hit up D’Attilo to be his audition coach.

Johnson didn’t get the Crystal Palace gig, which he calls a blessing in disguise. A bigger blessing was the invitation from D’Attilo to play the simplest of songs for a bunch of kids. “You know when your heart melts like that?” Johnson said of his “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” experience. “I said, Please, let me do this again.”

The job of director of the Earthbeat Choir didn’t come easy. Johnson, who is married but has no kids, confesses to “a lot of rookie mistakes.”

“Confidence was the biggest thing,” said Johnson, who calls himself a kid at heart. “And parameters ” how to control a class of 20, 30, up to 60 kids, without beating up their spirit. Doing it gently. I already had the heart to be a teacher, to inspire and encourage others. It was learning the skills.”

Johnson developed those skills. “Now, I can have 60 kids in a room focused and enjoying themselves in minutes,” he said. “And I don’t need to scream to do it.”

His passion for the job doesn’t seem to have been lost at all in the process. Johnson carries a thick, organized scrapbook of photos and other mementos from his years of teaching. In his car is a stack of recent graduation photos from past students. Johnson seems to get his biggest kick out of the fact that most of the staff he hires for the summer camps are former Earthbeat Choir students. And his ultimate aim as a teacher is to have his students surpass him in musical skills.

“I tell my guitar students, the goal is I want them to kick my ass and then fire me. So there’s nothing more for me to teach them,” he said. When they reach that point, Johnson usually suggests that they move on to lessons with Dave Harding, a local player with a more advanced understanding of the fretboard.

Johnson, however, is looking to do more than teach guitar skills. Johnson, who had never written a song prior to hooking up with the Earthbeat Choir, has now composed some 75 tunes, many of them in collaboration with the students. Most of those explore serious themes: “Every Reason to Live” is about a parent’s battle with cancer; “In Spite of It All, I Still Love You” addresses a child’s perspective on divorce. “I Wish You Could Stay” is another cancer-related song. Johnson wrote it for a girl to sing to her cancer-stricken mother; the day after she sang it, the mother died, providing Johnson with one of his most bittersweet moments.

“I’m a believer that it’s not just the singing techniques that are important,” said Johnson, a frequent participant at the Song School, held during the Folks Festival in Lyons. “It’s developing the confidence and belief in oneself. And the lyrics have a strong message.”

Johnson can hardly imagine a life without kids around him. “It would be empty,” he said. “If I was just a waiter, manager, bartender, that would be like the tonic without the vodka. It would be sad.”

But Johnson also has a well-developed adult side. He keeps a notebook of songs he has written; the book has a warning that it is off-limits to minors. Among the songs is “Curled Toes,” about sensual pleasure. He has a passion for wine and food; one of his great pleasures is getting together with former students who are now old enough to enjoy a drink. He has a mind for politics, and leans well toward progressive views.

“I love adult conversation, too,” he said. “I couldn’t be with kids all the time. That would drive me nuts.”


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