The sweet sounds of fourth-graders making music
By Lou Fancher
It's been six long years since fourth-graders in the Mt. Diablo school district have had a chance to blow a horn or draw a bow across some cello strings. But the music program is back, and the kids are wasting no time getting up to speed.
Flutist Charles Jones, 9, says that blowing air through the "strawberry seed" opening of his tightly pursed lips is surprisingly easy.
"I like it because I could do it right away," the El Monte Elementary School fourth-grader said during practice. "The hardest part is getting my fingers to their places."
For teachers, administrators and parents of students, the hardest part was enduring the musical desert after 2009, when fourth- and fifth-grade instrumental programs were eliminated due to budget cuts. The fifth-grade program was reinstated in fall 2014, with fourth grade restored this year. But the program's absence those years has had a ripple effect in middle school and high school music programs as students entering those schools lacked music instruction.
"Everybody knew it was chopping the roots out from under the tree," said Karen Ashford, instrumental music instructor with the district for 22 years. Ashford rotates between three elementary schools, teaching brass, woodwinds and strings classes.
"Adding fourth grade opens up a possibility in middle school for all levels of bands," she said. "They'll see the good effects in 2017, when they get the kids who've played for two years."
The reinstated program uses a scheduling model where students are pulled out of class for music at certain times during the week, similar to what the district did before the cuts made in 2009.
Other school districts do the same. Moraga School District instructor Adam Noel says the program there is built into the school day, with students meeting once a week for band, orchestra or choir. The Lafayette School District follows a similar model. In Walnut Creek district elementary schools, students miss one and a half hours of instructional time per week, said Buena Vista School Principal Amy Espinosa, but no new material is covered while they are out.
Julianna Sikes, Mt. Diablo district's school support administrator, said that a short-term committee comprising music and classroom teachers, administration and one community member met several times in 2014 to determine the program's structure.
"Instrumental music teachers are assigned to sites, then a specific site schedule is developed by the principal, music teacher and with input from classroom teachers," she said.
Ashford says most teachers at the schools she serves do reading or one-on-one instruction when students are scheduled for music, and parents were told about the structure before signing up. Pulling a few students at a time might not be perfect, but it allows more hands-on instruction than if the entire class was pulled at the same time, she said.
"This is a time when students can try one instrument, then switch if it doesn't suit them," Ashford said. "They learn to pay attention, to change on the fly to fit with the group. By the end of the first year, they know one scale, a handful of songs. By the second year, they can play scales, syncopation, dotted rhythms. They gain confidence; the difference is huge."
Ashford says 63 students are enrolled in the program at El Monte, with 32 waiting for instruments the district has purchased that will arrive in December. Trumpet and violin are the most popular instruments.
Kerri Kinard, the mother of El Monte fourth-grade student Kailyn Sterley, 9, said that hearing her daughter play the trumpet is wonderful. "Music is near and dear to my heart. I grew up playing the piano. Think of the great composers -- Mozart, Beethoven. She's learning them. Learning isn't just about books."
Kinard says her daughter is a good student, so she doesn't worry about her sometimes missing core instruction. "We wish we had this program years ago," she said.
Mateo Haro, 9, has learned in the program at El Monte that "strings stick to wood if you put your instrument in cold weather." He prefers his cello's deep tones to the sound of a violin. "I can play 'Hoedown' and 'Hot Cross Buns.' I like everything about it," he said.
Jazmine Caspillo, 9, says playing the flute connects her to her grandmother, who years ago played the same instrument. Surprised that holding her arms up and her back straight was hard, but necessary to make a good sound, she likes to practice.
"I like doing it even though it takes time from playing with my friends," she said. "I want to play 'Hot Cross Buns' without looking at my fingers."