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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

exclusive: catching up with jesse cook

As part of my gig with Our Kids Magazine, I was lucky enough to interview local artist, Jesse Cook who went to Waldorf years ago. The following is what came about.

Waldorf education has housed many future well known artists. Many celebrities take their children to the school.

Quick fact: Friends star, Jennifer Aniston started her grade school education at the Steiner school in New York before she went off to the “Fame” high school for the performing arts.

At the Toronto Waldorf School, one of its most well known children is guitarist extraordinaire, Jesse Cook. Known for his fast fingers and unique style of rumba flamenco, Cook attended the school in Thornhill, Ontario from grade 4 to grade 10. ” We were the fourth Waldorf class in Canada, the guinea pigs”. Recalled Cook. “I arrived shortly after they had moved into their own building. Construction was far from completed, Every time it rained we put out buckets to catch the dripping water. Parents where volunteering on the weekends to help finish the school. It was a very communal atmosphere.”

“Today, Highway 7 and Bathurst”, where the school has been located since it opened in 1968, “is surrounded by suburbs, but back then the school was hidden deep in the woods in the middle of nowhere.” Jesse remembered. “ I traveled 2 hours each way on a myriad of streetcars, subways and buses to get there. My family lived in The Beach in the east end of the city. Today it seems crazy to me to have traveled so far to go to a school when there were two schools within a half a block of my house. But when I was nine the Waldorf School was my salvation.”

Salvation? Two school around the corner? Why Waldorf though? “I never seemed to fit in at regular schools. If I wasn’t bored, I was failing, or both. Waldorf had me hooked from the second I walked in. It was ceaselessly stimulating. We were forever drawing, singing, building, listening to stories, learning, dancing and playing. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that those stories were The Iliad, Beowolf, the biography of Leonardo da Vinci, and other subjects I would study again later in university.”

Waldorf always seems to know how to hook the young eager mind into learning what they thought they never wanted to learn.

We all know how Waldorf sparks the creative side of the individual, but how about the other parts of life? “When I was young,” Cook revealed. “Waldorf’s emphasis on keeping children young, surrounding them with sounds, scents and recognizing the importance of play, stood at high contrast to what was going in my local public school. There, we were told to sit still in our seats, read our textbooks and do our homework. Waldorf fostered within me a love and fascination of the world around me, it’s history and physiology that stays with me to this day.

Public schools seem to be changing. Today, my son is in a public school and much of what he is learning more closely resembles curriculum at the Waldorf School than what they were teaching at my local public school in the 1970s.”

With eight albums deep including his latest, Rumba Foundation, I had to ask Cook about his inspirations and what got him to write. Had Waldorf been part of that creative play he would share with millions years later? “We had a wonderful music teacher at the school, but my serious music studies always came from outside the school.” He divulged. “ The Waldorf School’s benefit to my career was by providing me with a well-rounded view of all the arts. Once you specialize, it is easy to become completely absorbed by music and lose perspective on what you are doing and how it fits into our world.” How about his creative journey on how he makes a track? ”An important part of the creative process is leaving time to experiment and play.” Cook continues, ”With the structure of modern recording being what it is today, it is easy to find yourself under the pressure of the clock. The recording studio is an expensive place and you are billed by the hour. Then there is the pressure from your record label to produce a new CD every eighteen months. It is hard to be inspired, vulnerable and emotionally honest when you are under that kind of stress.” He then shared, “Early on in my life, I built a recording studio in my coach house so that I could mitigate that pressure and be creative whenever I pleased. A workplace, like a school, is an important environment and can help or hinder your growth, even as a big person.”

And as a big person now, looking back at the days at Waldorf, what were the positives and negatives of Waldorf? ”Knowing how to dip your own beeswax candles and crotchet your own recorder case, very useful skills in the 21st Century.” Jesse joked about the positive aspects of the learning experience. ”I have met many ex-Waldorfians over the years and one of the common traits seems to be a confidence and comfort with having an outsider’s perspective. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, living in a world of 6 billion people, surrounded by ever-growing urban sprawl, big-box stores and multinational corporations, I value people who can make up their own minds about things, regardless of whether they are part of general consensus or the latest trend.”

Very true.

How about the negatives? “I can’t speak to today’s Waldorf schools. But in my day, the emphasis was definitely on the arts. In my case it was great, coming from a family of artists heading in that direction too. But for other kids in my year who wanted to go into more academic fields, the school was not providing them with enough of a well-rounded education. Several friends who went on to become doctors and veterinarians, realized what their education was lacking and left the school after grade 10 so they could attend schools with stronger science programs.”

Today what would you say to parents who want to send their kids to a Rudolf Steiner based education? “I think it really depends on the kid on the school and on whom they get as their Homeroom teacher.” Cook advices. “I have friends whose kids have gone to Waldorf schools with varying results. As you might expect, some were unhappy and decided to pull their kids out after a period, while others were (and are) ecstatic with the results and recommend the school to everyone they meet. If someone is seriously considering the school, they should see it for themselves, perhaps even try their child in the school for a few days to see if it is a good fit before they commit.”

Jesse Cook is currently on a Canadian wide tour hitting such cites as Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Montreal, and Vancouver from now till the end of next month. For all Cook news and the full concert schedule you can check out his website here.