Sunday, December 02, 2001

The bands are back

Schools restoring music programs

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        After three decades of cuts in public school music programs, bands, orchestras and choirs are slowly coming back in schools that lost them.

        The Withrow High School band, absent for more than 15 years, is practicing during the school day and will march on the football field next fall.

        Across town, West Clermont schools have started a program to teach 400 kids to play the violin, cello and other stringed instruments.

[photo] Withrow High School Principal Paul Ramstetter sits with a selection of broken instruments in the school's band room.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Norwood has more kids performing in music groups than ever — 770, one-fourth of all students in school.

        Schools are jump-starting music because parents demand it and administrators are conceding that music students make better grades and are more apt to stay out of trouble, too.

        “Music is the thing we cut first,” Withrow principal Paul Ramstetter says. “Now we need to go back and get the cultural experience, the things that really keep kids in school.”

        Numbers are elusive. But all 15 school districts contacted by the Enquirer say they're hiring new teachers, starting new programs or teaching music to more kids than a decade ago. More than one of every four elementary, middle and high school students is marching in a band, performing in an orchestra or choir — even learning to compose music.

        In Ohio, 76 percent of school districts now require at least some art or music for graduation, compared to 35 percent in 1989, according to an August report by the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education.

        In Northern Kentucky, which has a history of huge, competitive marching band programs, school officials are hoping to add instruction in stringed instruments for the first time ever.

        Still, kids these days must pay to play — much like they do for sports. Many music programs, formerly held during the school day, are after school. How much general music kids get in primary grades varies from district to district — even from school to school.

        And vast disparities remain.

        “Some kids may have parents with the means to pay for private teachers,” says Michael Blakeslee, deputy director of the National Association for Music Education, a service organization for music teachers with 90,000 members.

        “But do we want really a cultural caste system? Do we want just the wealthy kids in the suburbs getting this, and everyone else not?”

Withrow: Starting over

        On the edge of Hyde Park, Withrow High once mounted a week-long musical extravaganza called the “Sounds of Withrow.” But when music programs succumbed to budget cuts, and Withrow's once-grand auditorium fell into disrepair in the '70s and '80s, the sounds of music fell silent.

    The “Mozart effect,” the theory that classical music makes the brain work better, still is being debated. But three of every four Ohio school districts say music is as important as other academic subjects, according to an August report by the Ohio Alliance for Arts Education.
    And recent studies show that kids involved in the arts really do get better grades and score higher on college entrance exams.
    • Higher grades: Students involved in music and theater outperformed their peers in math and reading, whether they came from affluent or low-income backgrounds, a team of researchers at UCLA found in 1999.
    • Higher SAT scores: In 2000, the College Entrance Examination Board reported that students with music performing experience scored a total of 93 points higher than their peers on verbal and math portions of the SAT. Students who had taken music appreciation courses scored 102 points higher on the verbal and math tests, where the best possible score is 1,600.
    • Saying no to drugs: Last December, more than 25,000 kids ages 9-17 said that music, family and sports kept them from using drugs. Music was the No. 1 reason given in a youth marketing campaign funded by Congress.
    Still, teachers find it hard to justify their work with hard facts and numbers to administrators.
    “Words like "faddish research' have been used by administrators in our district, and it's hard to combat that,” Winton Woods band teacher Kim Suffel says.
    It's better, some say, to simply highlight what music offers.
    “Music opens a world to other opportunities and other possibilities. It gives (children) a sense of accomplishment and self-worth,” says Camille Giraud Akeju, president of the Harlem (New York) School of the Arts.
    “It shows them alternatives to just the day-to-day survival issues. It shows them the beauty in things, and in themselves. It helps them express what's already in themselves.”
        Until last month, Withrow's band room was a dusty time capsule of broken musical instruments, fading posters on the walls and stacks of old music, unused in 15 years.

        About a year ago, parents pushed to bring back the band. Principal Ramstetter figured it would take $20,000 to recondition rusty clarinets and flutes and replace irreparably broken drums and music stands. Somehow, he had to find money in his school budget to hire a band teacher.

        Grant requests — to VH1, Mr. Holland's Opus and Folger's/The Grammy Foundation — were turned down. Then just before school started, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Cincinnati kicked in enough to fix some instruments — about $7,300.

        Now 35 students are learning to read music. They practiced marching empty-handed until some of the instruments arrived from the repair shop about three weeks ago. They're waiting for more.

        “We're starting from square one. Most of them have never played an instrument before,” says Lee Black, 23, who was hired to teach band 10 hours a week — all the school can afford. “Every student has an instrument in mind that they want to play. They have a great enthusiasm about it.”

        Mr. Black's goal is to have a full marching band ready for football season next fall. He is waiting for another grant that would make him a full-time music teacher. If that goes through, he wants to start an orchestra.

        “Having a nice band is an outward sign to a lot of people that the school is first-class,” Mr. Ramstetter says. “A lot of people come to football games, and all they see is what the football team does — and how well the band performs.”

West Clermont: Interest high

        In 1997, when parents asked why West Clermont schools didn't offer students instruction in stringed instruments, administrators huddled.

        “It was not pressure, but a sense that our kids deserved the opportunities other districts have,” superintendent Michael Ward says. The timing was right; three years earlier, voters had passed a bond issue to build two high school performing arts centers.

        “We expected a small enrollment. At the first information meeting, 200 parents and children showed up,” Dr. Ward says. “We were overwhelmed with the interest in strings.”

        The Corbett Foundation contributed $20,000 for musical instruments. West Clermont started small, with two teachers in two grades. That has doubled. Now, with four teachers, 400 string students in grades 6 through 9, a fiddle club and an annual joint concert with the Clermont Philharmonic, the goal is to teach strings through 12th grade and start a full orchestra.

        “It's just another way of engaging kids in meaningful learning,” Dr. Ward says. “It's pretty powerful.”

Norwood: Coming back

        When the last Chevrolet Camaro rolled off the Norwood plant line and General Motors shut it down in 1987, repercussions were felt all the way down to kids taking music in Norwood schools.

        Half of all elementary school music and art was cut. “That was our biggest hit,” says John Michael Ward, director of creative and performing arts at the time. Mr. Ward's $45,000 budget for music, art and drama in 1986 was slashed to nearly nothing in 1987, the year he retired.

        Despite tough times, the district clung to its music programs. Parents rallied behind the strings program that Mr. Ward had started in 1980; children played their violins at board meetings.

        Strings survived, and in 1996, the whole music program began clawing its way back. Today, the high school has a 60-piece orchestra, several choruses, bands and a keyboard lab. Children start instruments in fourth and fifth grades.

        “Even though our population is down, we've had more participation in the music program than ever before,” says Allan Martin, Mr. Ward's successor. “The community points to it with pride. If we even think about cutting, the phones start ringing, the parents start attending board meetings and twisting arms.”

Parents pick up the tab

        Not all school districts have struggled to maintain music programs. It's cool to play a musical instrument in Wyoming schools, where beefy football players play violins in orchestra concerts.

        Forest Hills parents have fought to keep specialized music programs so that string teachers teach strings and band teachers teach band.

        And in Finneytown, where 59 percent of students have musical performing experience, parents and administrators work together to keep music strong — partly because it keeps kids out of trouble.

        But keeping music in schools hasn't been easy. In the past decade, the emphasis on state proficiency tests has sliced into teaching time and money. Failed school tax levies, school restructurings, staff layoffs — even school board members who didn't have music when they were kids — have contributed to music's decline.

        As a result, Ohio schools slashed general music teaching time 30 percent over the past 10 years in primary schools.

        “A board is always under pressure to do more with less money,” says John Penneycuff, president of the Winton Woods school board, where music participation has declined somewhat over 10 years.

        “If there's a program you don't understand the value of, it's easy to say, "Why do we need an orchestra? Who would notice if we got rid of it?'”

        Today, even as parents are demanding music, they increasingly find themselves paying more for it. Like school sports, music depends upon boosters who raise thousands of dollars every year — for band camp, private lessons, travel, uniforms, musical instruments and springtime awards.

        At Sycamore schools, where students can choose from an array of innovative music courses including a music synthesizer class, boosters contribute more than $60,000 a year.

        “In many districts, the music budget is what the boosters can raise,” says Kevin Boys, Sycamore's assistant superintendent.

        In Winton Woods, boosters annually raise $20,000 — one hot dog at a time. Without them, says choral teacher David Bell, “it would be impossible to do things at the level we're doing now.”

        And “pay to play” has become a fact of life. Kids in Norwood pay $50 a year for after-school programs such as jazz band. In Winton Woods, kids pay $47 a year for band — even though it meets during the school day. Band camp is required at Deer Park High, at a cost of $155 per student.

Facilities often poor

        Schools are scratching not only for funds, but for space to practice in.

        At Lakota East, built four years ago, a state-of-the-art music wing boasts a piano lab, practice rooms, lockers full of new instruments, a music library and an enormous band room with a ledge crammed with trophies.

        But in other districts, orchestras meet in gyms and cafeterias. Teachers go from room to room with carts to teach music.

        “Music teachers generally get the poorest facilities,” says Kim Suffel, who has taught band for 23 years, 17 at Winton Woods. “I've taught in bathrooms, basements, hallways and abandoned locker rooms.”

        Although schools like to show off the chorus and orchestra in holiday concerts, teachers still fight for credibility.

        “My frustration is, in a program that has had a long track record of success, every year we must once again prove that what we do is valued by the public. This becomes a political issue, because money follows politics,” says Robert Monroe, orchestra teacher and music coordinator of the Princeton School District.

        Winton Woods' Mr. Penneycuff cautions that music will flourish only with the right leadership.

        “You have to nourish it and be willing to take risks for the long term,” he says. “You hear the expression, "Don't kill the golden goose.' Some superintendents and boards don't set out to kill the goose — the music program — but they don't know how to nourish it, and it withers and dies.”

        Still, Winton Woods' Mr. Bell, who remembers when 23 music teachers did what 12 do today, believes music programs are “on the upswing.” His school board recently spent $75,000 on new sousaphones so the band could play in a parade last July 4 in Washington, D.C.


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