If you talk to a sixth-grader or a high school senior from Kent City’s band program, you will hear a similar story. For first-chair saxophonist and senior Zach Carlson, it began in elementary school during recess.
“I would ask my teacher if I could go to the music room, help out,” Zach said. “We helped organize things, hit some instruments together, practiced.”
For sixth-grade French horn player Savannah Miller, it was a childhood garage band she and her siblings concocted as kids. While Zach is exploring ways to continue music after graduation, Savannah can’t wait to fill his shoes.
“They’re so inspiring, to think that they were in these seats,” Savannah said of her musical high school counterparts.
Savannah’s far from alone. Over 58 percent of the sixth-grade class at Kent City are band members. There are 70 musicians in the 120-student class, a number that has been growing over the past four years. The largest section is the 26-chair trumpet section.
At Cedar Springs Public Schools the story is similar. There are 135 students in the sixth-grade band. The largest section is clarinet with 40.
Both schools’ directors have explanations for the large numbers — and are deliberate about retaining their student musicians through high school.
“I think kids are interested in band to try something they’ve never been able to do up until this point in their education,” Cedar Springs director Ryan Miller said, following a full rehearsal for the sixth-grade holiday concert. “It helps to have great elementary music teachers that get them interested.”
Cedar Springs offers fifth-graders a chance to try out various instruments in April, while Kent City holds a three-day camp in August for fifth-graders to gauge early interest. Students at both events are encouraged to just make a sound from the range of available instruments.
“Probably half of the (eventual sixth-grade band students) are there, but enough of them so they become student leaders within the group,” Kent City director Jonathan Schnicke said of the camp. “When we go to the large setting they can lead.”
Learning to Love It
For both directors, the end goal is to develop a love of music.
“The most important thing we learn at the beginning are the basics of a great band,” Miller said.
“I don’t get hung up on we need to hit this page number in the book,” Schnicke added. “There are skills that we want them to be at — a certain amount of notes, level of play — but the primary focus at the end of sixth grade is we want them to love it.”
In just her third month of playing French horn, Savannah sees the creativity allowed in music that she doesn’t get from other school subjects.
“In band there’s so many kinds of ways you can learn and play your instrument,” she said.
Clarinet player Izabella Arechiga agrees. “There can be so many ways of playing one letter, a higher note, a lower note,” she said. “I enjoy playing as the full band, hearing different instruments instead of just the woodwinds.”
Schnicke said his passion is helping students develop from young noisemakers into talented musicians. Working with the brass and percussion sections on a Monday morning, Schnicke raised his own trombone to demonstrate articulation. He then turned it over to the students, and the room erupted in one giant echo.
‘I’ve had kids that struggle in certain subjects, but excel in band.’ — Ryan Miller, Cedar Springs band director
“At the beginner level it’s so fun to see them at that first concert, where they’re struggling to play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and knowing by the end of the year they’re going to get to this point, seeing their confidence build,” he said.
As evidenced by the 135 Cedar Springs pupils gathered on the stage, Miller said music can serve a diverse range of students.
“The wonderful thing about music is that people from all walks of life can learn it and thrive,” Miller said. “I’ve had kids that struggle in certain subjects, but excel in band. Since we are always doing something, and it’s completely hands-on, it keeps the students engaged and busy.”
While band provides an escape from core subjects for many students, Schnicke said, it also teaches critical thinking skills and time management.
“When you sit down and do an equation, you are isolating; you’re figuring out how to solve that equation,” he explained. “In band, the solution always changes. Your goal is you want to hit or sing this note a certain way, and once I do that there’s always another question that follows. I hit that note, but how did I approach it? How did I leave it? Can I shape it better?
“There’s always five or six questions no matter what you do, pushing you to another level.”
Over at the Cedar Springs High School auditorium, Miller held his baton aloft, signaling the band to practice concert etiquette, from posture to instrument position to staying silent through the opening breath.
“We stress discipline in class,” Miller said. “Not just staying quiet and paying attention, but the discipline to stick with it and not give up.
“It’s also a complete team activity. We talk about if a kid messes up in math class it just affects that one student’s grade, but if a kid messes up in band it affects everyone in their section and the entire band.”
Between school, sports, rehearsals, competitions, practice and homework, Schnicke said band students have to become masters of efficiency.
Don’t Stop the Music
With such large recruitment numbers at the sixth-grade level, the next challenge is retaining students through high school.
Miller said the goal at Cedar Springs is to retain roughly 75 percent of students each year — sixth to seventh to eighth to high school.
In his fourth year at Kent City, Schnicke said the program has been greatly supported by administration. As directors have come and gone, he said, the program held its momentum.
The sixth-grade group is the largest he’s had at Kent City, he said, from which he hopes to retain 80-90 percent of students into high school. The high school band currently has 74 students, which he hopes will grow in the coming years to the upper 80s or lower 90s.
“We have a lot of little ones that look up to the high schoolers and that’s something really special,” he said.
Kent City has recently seen gains in its high school marching band, taking third in the state this season for the first time in school history.
‘The primary focus at the end of sixth grade is we want them to love it.’ — Jonathan Schnicke, Kent City band director
Zach Carlson, a leader of that group, said it’s about a sense of community.
“I feel like we all really bond together as a band,” he said. “We all wanted to work together. We knew how successful we could be. This year, our leadership, we really pulled it together and pushed other kids.”
Schnicke’s daughter, Julia, plays French horn in the sixth-grade band, but has spent the past few years at high school marching band rehearsals and competitions. She and her fellow musicians said they are already invested in continuing that success.
“It seems like they’ve grown so much,” Julia said. “If we can maintain that it would make us feel so good.”