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Couple Travels North Central Florida Teaching Blues In Schools

For Mark and Barbara Armbrecht, teaching students the blues isn’t just about music and melodies.

It’s about the young girl, who climbs on Barbara’s lap while she plays the blues.

It’s about another girl, who tells them her mom is an alcoholic.

It’s about the boy with a severe handicap, who refuses to join the semicircle, upset at his changed environment. That same boy heard just a few minutes of a blues melody and couldn’t help but sit in the front row, clapping his hands to the beat.

“That really meant something,” Mark Armbrecht said. “I had tears running down my cheeks. The power of music, holy smokes, it’s amazing.”

Since last year, husband and wife Mark and Barbara Armbrecht have been volunteering their time at Blues in the Schools, a North Central Florida Blues Society program that brings blues music education into schools. They travel around North Central Florida to educate students.

The Armbrechts are members of the North Central Florida Blues Society. Mark Armbrecht is the vice president and Barbara Armbrecht is a board member. Mark Armbrecht is an artist in many capacities, from music to metal sculpture. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music and a performance degree in trumpet.

Barbara Armbrecht is a retired professional horse trainer, who now dedicates her life to music and what she describes as “gigging around.” Although she does not have formal training, Armbrecht has dabbled in the music industry since she was a teenager.

The couple also plays music as a duo called Middleground, which performs around North Central Florida.

“Music has been an incredible gift for me,” Barbara Armbrecht said. “I’ve experienced things in my life I never would have, had I not gotten to play music. It’s that time in my life when I can give back.”

Spreading blues music and education is their way of giving back to the community. They have had 10 performances so far: seven for public schools and three for private schools. Some of the performances were held at the Hippodrome State Theatre in downtown Gainesville. Public schools follow a rigid schedule, so it can be difficult for the Armbrechts to perform in the classrooms, specifically for public schools.

“There is a requirement to have music and art education, but it’s being pushed aside,” Mark Armbrecht said.

He said the teachers don't have time in their schedules to afford an hour to do something extra.

However, the Armbrechts said they think these difficulties might be changing. Mark Armbrecht recently spoke with Alachua Board of Education member Rob Hyatt about increasing music and arts education in public schools. Hyatt said he could not comment on the topic at this time.

However, the Armbrechts haven’t let scheduling woes stop them from being active blues educators.

North Central Florida Blues Society president Rob Richardson said the Armbrechts don’t limit where or how they can teach the blues.

“They're actively out there looking for opportunities to educate,” Richardson said. “They're two of the more important, valuable people to the blues society. They’re doing something critical: They’re reaching out to children.”

Tas Cru, also a blues educator and musician, agreed. Cru said Mark and Barbara Armbrecht have a deep understanding of blues history and how it is performed, which highlights their commitment to the program.

“Mark and Barbara are very, very active themselves in designing and presenting programs within that reach,” Cru said.

They have worked with kids from as young as 3 or 4 years old up to high school age. Although the Blues in the Schools program outlines a sample session for different age groups, the Armbrechts adapt sessions to the group of kids at hand. One group of children might need to be active during the session. Another might need to have visuals in addition to the music.

Regardless of age, working with children is especially rewarding for the duo.

“You don’t give back to the people who gave to you,” Barbara Armbrecht said. “You give to the people who are in need. And that is the kids. They are missing out. They’re the ones who need someone to take them by the hand and open a door here, or open their eyes here, or open their heart here.”

For the Armbrechts, blues education expands beyond just school doors. It is equally as indispensable for adults in their understanding of the blues, of music and of American culture.

“Music is at the heart of every single one of us,” Mark Armbrecht said. “It affects every single one of us whether we realize it or not. If you let that music come in — wow. It’s just tremendous what can happen.”

Christine is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.