If Jim Swiggart could make one rule that would help children in social situations, he would require all schools to teach music from kindergarten through junior high.
“Music is a big key to really getting in someone’s head,” Swiggart said. “It can make you want to learn. You find a place to be successful and interact with other people with the same interests. Academics will be learned, but music helps give children something they really look forward to at school. Athletes and musicians are passionate about going to school. Others go, but often there is no passion about it.
“We all have feelings we need to express,” Swiggart said. “When you see a classroom of students making music together, you can see how much they are getting out of being creative. That is not your normal classroom.”
Swiggart was born in 1940 to a musical family in Oklahoma where both parents were teachers. In 1955 while in high school, he got a superior rating singing in a statewide music contest that led to him being offered a $150 scholarship to attend the summer program at the Inspiration Point Fine Arts Colony’s Opera in the Ozarks.
Schoolteachers didn’t get paid in the summer, and Swiggart usually worked with his dad in the summer painting houses. So, while it was a sacrifice for his parents, his mom and dad made sure it happened for him. At that time, the Opera in the Ozarks was held on rocky ground in a very rustic setting. He got involved in several operas that summer, rehearsed six days a week, did a lot of productions at the Auditorium in Eureka Springs, and got to sing on the stage.
“It was an important success feeling in my life,” Swiggart said. “That’s how it started for me. It made me want to come back every year. I did it four years in a row under world famous teachers.”
He went to college pursuing majors in voice and trombone. He dreamed of a career as an opera singer. But in his junior year of college, he sang Faust after coming down with strep throat. It ruined his voice for becoming a professional opera singer.
“There was no backup singer for my role,” Swiggart said. “My teacher didn’t know how serious my illness was. If we were going to do the opera, I had to sing.”
With opera out, and few jobs available to play trombone professionally, it made sense to be a teacher. He found that while college didn’t teach him how to teach, it taught him how to set goals. That led to him coming up with his own style that included the unusual element of having his band members also sing.
“Music is about pitch,” he said. “When you see notes on a page, they are a picture of sound going up and down, repeated in different rhythms. An easy way to show that is to sing the notes so you know what it sounds like without even playing it. You start out humming the notes, make the sound on the instrument, and internalizing the sounds in your head. This became my own teaching style, a very successful one.”
Another unique thing he did was get involved with putting on operas at the schools where he worked. Most of all, he managed to translate his love of music to students.
“Music is the soul; it’s spiritual,” Swiggart said. “From all over the world and through the ages, music has been the expression of emotions. A Japanese student and American student who can’t talk to each other can play music together. It is the feelings and understanding of what is around you that make up the music.”
Swiggart moved around teaching in several locations in Oklahoma and Kansas before later in his career going to work at Moore Oklahoma High School. While there, he was approached to be general director of the Opera in the Ozarks.
“I had the largest school in Oklahoma, four kids, and took on a summer opera program in my spare time,” Swiggart said. “It was crazy. I was also working on a doctorate degree at Oklahoma University. I finally gave up on the doctorate because I couldn’t do that and opera.”
He retired from Moore High School in 1991 not because he was finished with teaching, but because he was tired of lack of support for music programs.
“As the music program went down, the school went down,” Swiggart said. “There are people in education making decisions who don’t understand music can improve lives. I’ve seen second graders who can sight read music. They can do that by starting to teach them music in kindergarten.”
In 1995, his wife Janice retired from her oil company job, and they were both free to do something different. They moved to Eureka Springs.
In 2001, he got a call from the superintendent of schools in Berryville who had fired the band director and wanted Swiggart to take over. The high school band had dwindled to 14 members, and having someone excited about music led to growing the band to 70 in three semesters and then competing as a marching band in the Cotton Bowl 2003 against large schools from all over the U.S.
“It was a great experience for the kids,” he said. “Three-fourths of the band had not been outside of Arkansas before. The kids got to stay at a five-star hotel in Dallas. They had a great time down there.”
The Berryville band grew to be one of the best high school programs in the country, and a national magazine wrote about it.
“It was very elite with what was accomplished,” Swiggart said. “This past year, there was the same situation in Berryville as in 2001, so I went over and taught second semester this past year.”
Swiggart is still far from retired. He does consulting to help schools improve music programs, and was director of the Ozarks Chorale for many years. He still sings in the chorale and directs the Holiday Island Community Church Choir.
He is director of the Carroll County Community Orchestra composed of both high school students and adults — some of whom hadn’t played their instruments for decades.
“We have people drive here from Bella Vista, Heber Springs, Harrison, and all over this county to play,” he said. “Nine or ten band directors play in it. Get that horn out of the case, and don’t worry about anything but playing. A gentleman here in Holiday Island hadn’t played tuba for 40 years. Now he plays all the time. People very much enjoy an opportunity to create music again.”
Swiggart looks back on his life and can’t believe how blessed he has been.
“I’ve been able to do so many things,” he said. “I sang an opera I learned at Inspiration Point in San Diego. I sang an opera with the Oklahoma City Symphony. You get the passion for music from being exposed to people who have the passion. I was around some of the most incredible musicians in the U.S. at Inspiration Point. Not that many people get that lucky.”
For more information about the orchestra, call (479) 981-2659.