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Learning through music: Tennessee Wesleyan alum Josh Bragg ’14 inspires Athens City Middle School students through music and theatre

JoshBragg_TWC_FINCH-11On a Thursday during the week before the end of school, Athens City Middle School music teacher Josh Bragg ’14 had his students working hard, sharing stories they wrote while other students acted along. Bragg was involved with the process, acting with students, showing them how to fill in their stories, and teaching them teamwork and collaboration to encourage his students to be the best they can be.

“When I think about how a lot of these kids have nothing when they go home, they don’t have anybody to believe in them, they don’t have anybody to encourage them, so it’s my job to let you know I care about you, to be hard on you because a lot of people don’t have that,” Bragg said. “I want to give them something, something they can leave with. If it’s not anything I’ve taught them music or theatre wise, I like to think I teach them life lessons; be accountable, responsible, come prepared, take responsibility for your actions. A lot of the kids [on the last day of school] left saying ‘I’ll remember what you taught me in class, but I’ll remember more what you taught me about how to be a person.’”

Throughout his music and theatre classes, Bragg tried to infuse life lessons into each activity. He plans every class to ensure the material relates back to the students and their lives, connecting Mp3 and theatre to science, confidence, responsibility and more. Making lessons fun and engaging helps Bragg connect with his students and allows him to show students the impact of art on life.

“I want them to have a love of all things fine arts and a love of themselves,” Bragg said. “If I can’t relate this to you and your life and how it’s going to affect you for the rest of your life, why should I teach it? This year I taught them about how their hearing works and how all the things in their ear work so they can protect their hearing for the rest of their life and be able to enjoy music. I taught them public speaking and how to stand in front of a crowd and talk. They were like why are you teaching us this, this isn’t speech class. I said it’s stage presence, it’s easy.”

While Bragg is trained in music education, he takes great pride in seeing his students excel in other areas as well. After working with his students on stage presence and public speaking in class, he worked with a student to prepare for a speech competition, putting in extra time to help the student succeed.

“I ended up having a kid who went so many rounds in this speech contest, and we would work every day after school,” Bragg said. “She ended up writing every skit that was put in my talent show and directing and starring in them. To see it go from a lesson in class to this big huge thing, that’s the dream. That’s the dream.”

Being a music teacher has been Bragg’s dream since high school. He grew up in a musical family, singing from the time he could talk.

“My mom and dad both sang and both of their families sang, so I didn’t JoshBragg_TWC_FINCH-19really have a choice; it was like you’re going to sing in church,” Bragg said. “Then in fourth grade I joined children’s choir and was in that for three and a half years. By the seventh grade when I got [to Athens Junior High], I started being asked to sing at local churches and stuff. Eighth grade year was when I was in the talent show here and that’s when things really took off. That was around the time I wanted to sing. Before then you had to beg me. After I came through here, you couldn’t get me to shut up. I thought sports aren’t for me, I’m going to sing the rest of my life.”

Though Bragg knew he wanted to be a music teacher after graduation, he did not always know he wanted to attend Tennessee Wesleyan. He calls Tennessee Wesleyan his last resort, but a meeting with Keith Wheeler, the chair of the fine arts department, changed his mind.

“I had applied to 12 colleges including Wesleyan, and got accepted into all of them. I had made up my mind I’m not going to Wesleyan; I’m not staying in Athens. My heart was set on Lee,” Bragg said. “I knew Dr. Wheeler; he had been my voice teacher when I was a freshman in high school. We set up this meeting with him because my mom thought he was going to convince me to go. I thought if you can convince me that I’m going to have as good as an experience here as I would at Lee, then I will go here. And, of course, he pulled out all the stops. I had a full ride. I would not trade it for the world. I know if I had gone to Lee I wouldn’t have made it. I’d have been miserable. I’d have been absolutely miserable. My mom convinced me to go here. I got to live on campus for free which is what really sold it. I didn’t have to be at home. I got the college experience and still got to be in my hometown, familiar with everything. Didn’t have to worry about getting lost. If I had a hard time, I could go home. I spent a lot of time at home my freshman year.”

Though Tennessee Wesleyan was not his first choice, Bragg became involved with theatre and choir during his freshman year, making friendships that have lasted beyond graduation. While his freshman year was difficult, joining the theatre club and participating in the spring production helped him find his passion and change his life.

“I was in a terrible depression my freshman year,” Bragg said. “These people approached me to join theatre club, so I decided to do the spring production, which was a storytelling show. We told student stories, real life stories, like stories how they crossed into America, stories about how they used to cut themselves, how they got molested, it was deep. That changed my life. It pulled me out of my depression. It put me around a group of friends, and those were the friends I had for the next four and a half years until I graduated. It got me involved in theatre. It was amazing. I’ll never forget that.”

Bragg credits the small campus and the familial atmosphere at Tennessee Wesleyan for his enjoyment of his time as a Bulldog. During his meeting with Wheeler, Wheeler told Bragg about the academic environment at Tennessee Wesleyan, talking about smaller class sizes, personal relationships with professors and staff, and the ease of getting help on campus, all things Bragg found to be true of his experience.

“The first word that came to mind was family when I think of Tennessee Wesleyan, when I think of my time there and my friendships and the bonds I made there, not only with students, but with my professors, the staff in the cafeteria, the library workers, the janitors. I knew the janitor on my floor at Fowler on a personal level,” Bragg said. “It just felt like home, so homey. I knew anywhere I went on campus I was going to know somebody. I knew I’d be able to talk to somebody or I’d be able to get help. I never felt like a stranger anywhere. I think about people who had my back, really had my back, probably shouldn’t have. In a family you always have that uncle that’s got your back or that aunt who will slide you a piece of cake when your mom said no. I just think of family, absolutely family. It’s home.”