Davis grew up in Virginia, where his family enjoyed and appreciated music. “My parents were not professional musicians, but music was always a part of our household,” says Davis. “My dad played the ukulele, my mom played the piano. I took piano lessons.” Davis said that while he did go to music school, he wasn’t a “virtuoso player,” and it was music outside the traditional collegiate environment that would eventually capture his heart and inspire him.
As a young man in the mid-1970s, Davis wanted to experience life outside the metro Washington, DC, area and ended up, on what he calls a whim, in Vermont. “A friend had come to Vermont,” he says. “He loved it for its trout fishing, and he wanted to come to Vermont and build banjos.” Davis was interested in banjos, too. “I was discovering the banjo and learning to play the banjo, and I thought, ‘That sounds like an adventure.’”
And so, to Vermont he came. Davis says he only lasted about a year in the banjo company, but banjos themselves, along with other forms of folk music, captured his heart and tethered him to the new place he’d begun to fall in love with. “Once I moved here, I thought, ‘Why would I go back to suburban Washington?’ I could see no reason in that,” says Davis. “And I was getting involved in the music scene around here.”
Davis says that when he became involved with the traditional music that was thriving in Vermont in the mid-70s, he was immediately inspired and excited.
“I discovered traditional music,” he says. “Folk music, the banjo, the accordion, contra dancing, square dancing. I got into this other world of music that was not the conservatory academic side of music. Not the classical. It was more of music that was going on in communities. Group singing, dancing. There was kind of a folk boom going on in New England in the ‘70s, where contra dance, which is still with us today, was being revived. People were forming bands and learning to play the music, and I got involved in that.”
Eventually, Davis started substituting as a music teacher in Dover. “Before I knew it, I was working five days a week,” he says.
In the classroom, Davis works with two traditional teaching methods in the realm of music — Orff and Kodaly. The Kodaly approach, named for Zoltán Kodaly, is choral, says Davis. “He was a Hungarian composer. He was very interested in music education, and his program is pretty vocal-based and it’s the idea of getting kids to really listen to the musical scale.”
Orff, Davis explains, is so named for Carl Orff, a German composer who saw how in many communities across the world, children learned music by being around it within their communities.
“Orff saw how kids in traditional societies like an African village or a small town in Mexico may not have music teachers, but music is part of community life,” says Davis. “Children were worked into music. So he has this whole philosophy that’s called the Orff Method, which is to get kids playing instruments, singing while they dance, and dancing while other kids are playing. It incorporates storytelling as part of teaching music. So music is part of life and part of a creative process. It’s not just learning scales and names of notes. You have to make it come alive.”
That teaching style jibes with the community aspect of the music that inspired Davis in his early Vermont days. Today, Davis remains involved in contra dancing in the community, and he teaches contra dance to all his students. He’s created community through music in other ways, too. In 2003, he created a multigenerational choir in Brattleboro called the Oak Grove Intergenerational Chorus, which brings his elementary school students together with seniors. “It’s been really wonderful,” says Davis, saying he’s been witness to several friendships forming between students and seniors through the choir over the years.
Davis says he’s continually surprised by how much teaching keeps him on his toes, both as an educator and as a student.
“The kids are so diverse and music is so diverse,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful three-plus decades of kids. And I always tell people, if you’re going to be a teacher, you have to never be tired of learning. You end up spending the whole rest of your life in school. Being a music teacher is one creative journey after another. Every day is a creative journey.”