ALBANY — Music has always been the way that RiverJack Z, otherwise known as Jack Zucchini of The Zucchini Brothers, has connected to the world around him. The Zucchini Brothers’ legacy continues today, with music that bridges the gap between children and the world around them.
While the Zucchini Brothers continue to perform throughout the year, Jack has ventured into solo work. He visits schools, summer camps and libraries, as well as any other place where people are interested in making music. His main focus is educating both children and adults about music.
“The Zucchini Brothers’ songs never get old – they’re timeless,” said Jack. “Most of the songs I write now are songs that I’m writing with the students in the schools. Our philosophy with kids’ music is to not make it too ‘kiddie.’ We like to be funny; I think everything has to have humor in it.”
Working with preselected topics that range from Greek mythology, communities, fairy tales, character traits, superheroes, or kindness, Jack formulates a melody for the songs.
“It’s a different way to teach and reinforce things,” he said.
Melissa Pecora, a second grade teacher at Caroline Street Elementary School in Saratoga Springs works with Jack prior to entering the classroom.
“We discuss the topic, brainstorm words and ideas that go with the topic, and Jack begins to work his magic spinning these ideas into a chorus,” she said. “The kids are involved the whole time, shouting rhymes and suggestions as he plays. Main ideas become a chorus, and similar supporting details become verses.”
The song is typically constructed by the end of the session. On the second day, Jack returns to refine and practice the song.
“Jack then explains all the technology involved in recording the song, and we record both an audio and video version,” explained Pecora, who said the video aspect is a class favorite because “the kids love a dance break!”
“At the end of the week, after they have practiced it, they will perform it in front of the parents,” said Peter Carner, a fourth-grade teacher at Schuylerville Elementary School and director of Camp Northwoods. “I think the combination of the music and the movement part of the program gives a kid multiple avenues to express themselves.”
Not just a lesson.
“Kids don’t mind a lesson, as long as it’s not forced down their throat,” joked Jack. “But you can get a message across. Kids can relate to music. They especially like it when it’s live and can be done right in front of them. That’s not something kids get a lot of now.”
Cramer said that the more the kids can talk about how they’re feeling and have those words, the more they’re going to be able to articulate that and tell people how they’re feeling.
“He gives them that exposure to that vocabulary and puts it in an environment where it’s safe for them to talk about it, then puts it into a fun beat so that the kids are humming and singing the songs later after he leaves,” said Carner. “It may remind them how to deal with their problems better and voice their concerns to their parents or an adult.”
The significant results Pecora noticed in her students surpass the academically important aspects of writing, rhyming, poetry, topic recall and supporting details.
“But that’s not the big takeaway for the kids,” she said. “They feel such ownership in their songs. No child is left out, and no child’s idea is overlooked. Students who may not shine in the academic classroom become stars in the recording studio. Students cheer one another on when a lyric hits.”
“The more exposure that kids have to creative music … it inspires the kids to pick up and try an instrument,” noted Carner. “Jack is also great with vocabulary and thinking outside the box. Getting kids to think about joining words together, joining sentences, and coming up with bridges is amazing. He’ll also talk about how songs written down are poems.”
Jessica LaPier, assistant director of Site Based Services for the Clinton County Advocacy and Resource Center, has seen equal success and results with the adult program led by Jack. The Advocacy and Resource Center provides various program services for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities and their families.
Since last year, Jack has begun working with the center to provide a music program that LaPier refers to as “Music is Magic Sessions with RiverJack Z.”
“Some of the music sessions were literally magic. … I see a lot of benefits from the program,” said LaPier. “First, it’s fun. Agencies such as ours suffered in so many ways from the pandemic. When we started getting together with Jack, we were still wearing masks, but some people were able to see each other again for the first time in a few years.”
“The program also serves as a vehicle to deliver information about the topics in their lives that we want them to have more control over,” she added. “It gives them a voice and allows them to be heard and give input, which can help to build their confidence and advocacy skills. I also believe that what we have put together has had a therapeutic effect on people.”
“I love it, and they love it,” Jack enthused about his work. “They’re the ones teaching me so much.”
“No matter how people communicate with words, gestures, vocalizations, or by utilizing sign language, music is a universal language and does not discriminate,” said LaPier. “They give us part of them in the ways that they can, and you can feel it in the music we make together. There is something for everyone.”
This avenue of educating adults is new for him, but it is an opportunity that Jack said he is eager to pursue.
“It’s a whole new world out there,” he said regarding the evolution of the music scene in the Capital District.
He said he has noticed how “it’s not the thing it used to be” with the number of children’s bands in the area, which he speculates could be due to financial reasons or the prevalence of the Internet digitizing music.
“This type of program is lacking with the movement toward standardized tests and things like that,” commented Carner. “We’re not thinking outside the box, and Jack provides that thinking outside the box mentality and the music that is so needed in the classroom.”
Jack remains looking ahead with his new programs for adults and children while “carrying the torch” for the Zucchini Brothers. With his guitar at his side, he said he has no intention of stopping.
“I don’t know if when I was a kid, I would have listened to kid’s music or not,” admitted Jack. “I don’t know what I would have listened to us. But I’m trying to be the guy who would have gotten through to me. It’s so good to keep this going and for kids to always have live music.”