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Doin' the mess around
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The music of Ray Charles, a favorite son of Georgia, reached a younger generation with the 2004 film release of "Ray" starring Jaime Foxx.

Last week Rocky Plains Elementary School music teacher Matt Garwood gave his students the opportunity to tickle the ivories as Charles did - blind.

He asked the students what they already knew about the musician.

Students answered that he was blind and played piano, had a younger brother who died when they were children and was a rock star.

"Well, I wouldn't say a rock star," Garwood said, "more like gospel and jazz."

Garwood told the students Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson in 1930 in Albany. Although he was born in Georgia, Charles grew up in Florida.

"He didn't grow up at the beach or the resort, he was from a very poor part of Florida," Garwood said.

Charles eventually adopted a stage name, omitting his last name, so people would not confuse him with the famous boxer of the day Sugar Ray Robinson.

"Right around you all's age, his eyes stopped showing him what was going on," Garwood said, "and things just got darker and darker."

He asked the students to close their eyes and point to where he was while speaking from various spots around the classroom.

All of the students pointed in the correct direction.

"See, you guys aren't dumb because you can't see, you just have to use different senses," Garwood said.

He added Charles' mother tried to convey the same message to him and that was probably the reason he became such a successful recording artist. Charles' version of the song "Georgia on my Mind" was adopted as the state song of Georgia in 1979.

Garwood then demonstrated how Charles looked when he performed.

"Ray didn't sit still when he played music," Garwood said of Charles' signature rocking. "He moved so much he looked like he was going to fall out of his chair."

Rocky Plains Elementary is one of the schools in the county new enough to have a music room equipped with several Yamaha Music in Education Series keyboards, which utilize headphones so the students can hear only themselves or themselves with their partner. Teachers can listen in on the entire class or single out individual students.

Garwood had the students close their eyes again and try to find notes and chord blocks they had previously learned open-eyed on the keyboard.

Some students said they were impressed with Charles' ability to play so well without the ability to see, while others seemed inspired to create melodies in the dark.

Garwood said the lesson on Ray Charles is part of a month-long unit on black musicians.

"It's black history month and so I thought we could focus on black musicians," Garwood said, "and since it's only a month, American musicians."

This week, students will learn about the blues guitar styling of Memphis musician B.B. King.

 According to Garwood, music reflects the times in which it was produced so it is an excellent source for historical information.

"Through music, the kids get to figure out the world's a bigger place than they thought," Garwood said, "and that it tells the story of a culture, so you can learn a lot."