Friday, September 17, 2004

School music makes comeback

City teachers feel it helps brains develop

By Jennifer Mrozowski
Enquirer staff writer

New Cincinnati Public Schools band director Mike Schorr works with 6th grader Alex McGlothin as he blows into a trumpet.
(Craig Ruttle/The Enquirer)
Michael Schorr and four other Cincinnati teachers spent the last month hunting through dusty school closets, crawling around the district warehouse and picking through pawnshops.

Their goal: Find enough musical instruments to revive Cincinnati's elementary band program, discontinued a decade ago in a cost-cutting move.

It's been no easy task.

After the program was cut, instruments sat idle in closets and storerooms, growing dry or rusty. Others were lost or broken. And when Schorr and his colleagues decided to send letters to parents about the musical revival, they found that there was no money for postage.


To donate money, instruments or band equipment, call Cindi Menefield, the district's fine arts curriculum manager, at (513) 363-0212.  

But today, refurbished drums are poised to pound again. And well-oiled trumpets, French horns and trombones are set to blow their brassy notes.

They still have a long way to go, but if Schorr and his counterparts have their way, Cincinnati Public will revive the musical glory of olden days, when the district's music program was renowned nationwide. District officials also hope music education will help improve dismal academics.

"It is critical to have these co-curricular activities so that students get better connected to school," Superintendent Alton Frailey said. "Hordes of research show that kids who are connected to this perform better."

Cincinnati has a 150-year history of valuing elementary music education. In 1857, the city was the first to introduce music teaching in primary grades, according to history books.

The height of the band program was in the early 1960s, said Steve Kern, one of five teachers reviving the program. High schools had orchestras, choirs and marching bands. Elementary schools had traveling band directors.

West High, known for such famous alumni as Andy Williams and Rosemary Clooney, had a 144-piece marching band. Trumpet player Bill Berry, a member of Duke Ellington's band, also walked West High's halls.

Despite protests by parents, students and teachers, the district cut most instrumental music instruction in elementary schools in the 1990s.

Less than a dozen of the 58 elementary schools retained those programs, Kern said.

The cuts severed the pipeline of talented musicians entering high school bands.

But last school year, district officials placed a new emphasis on music education and its impact on academics.

Frailey said he wants all students to participate in extracurricular activities. The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers union fought to add five elementary music teachers to their ranks during contract negotiations. Music improves learning, both sides argued.

"We're going to teach (students) to read music and to be able to count music," Schorr said. "They'll learn fractions and be able to think in their mind of how pieces fit together in a puzzle. That will improve reading and math scores."

A daunting task

Schorr, one of the new elementary band directors, quickly learned that building the bands from scratch is difficult.

He and the other band directors discovered their equipment consisted of just 14 instruments. The valves of French horns were frozen. The trombone slides stuck. Drumheads were torn.

And after crafting a letter to 5,000 parents, he learned that no money was available for stamps.

But that didn't stop them.

"We needed to get the instruments so that any person who wants to play music can," Schorr said.

He found 10 businesses to send 500 informational letters each to parents. Schorr, Kern and the others searched the warehouse and closets and found a cache of instruments.

Mychael Langford, another band director, spent two weeks combing through pawnshops. One pawnshop owner, who graduated in 1935 from West High and had always wanted to play in the band, said he would sell the instruments to the band directors at cost.

Armed with a half-dozen tackle boxes filled with oil, flute pads, neck corks, saxophone glue, springs, hammers, screwdrivers and other items, the men began to cobble together the instruments.

One afternoon last week, Langford blew into a trombone, tested the slide and found resistance. He diagnosed the problem and prescribed some medication.

"A little oil and it's fixed," he said.

Kern tested a French horn. The melody of Wagner's Tannhaeuser Overture filled the music room at the Academy of Multilingual Immersion Studies, the band directors' headquarters in Roselawn.

"This is a good one," he said.

In all, they repaired about 135 instruments. Schorr said they still need about 365 horns, an assortment of drums, music stands, clarinet reeds, valve slide oil, lesson books and musical arrangements.

First notes sounded

Putting together the program will take time, but the first timid toots of horns sounded in elementary classrooms this week.

When the directors asked 160 fifth- and sixth-graders Thursday at Whittier School in Price Hill who wanted to participate in band, every hand shot up.

Twenty-seven kids signed up at Fairview German Language School, a school in Clifton Heights that had kept its band.

When sixth-grader Kathy Senior, 12, blew into a trombone Thursday, it blared like an elephant. She was hooked.

"Band is really fun," she said. "I think it gives kids a break from learning, to be free with the instruments."

Schorr said Cincinnati kids need the band program.

"Without people being able to express themselves through music, they are less than complete," Schorr said. "And learning how to play is fun. If you make school fun, people tend to come to school more often."


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