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A joyful noise for all

Northview—Lorenzo Earnest considered the flute he held for the first time and declared himself ready for something new.

“My mom wanted me to try it, and I think I’m going to go for it,” said the Highlands Middle fifth-grader as he sat beneath the shade of a tree outside the band room. “Then in January I’m going to try out for saxophone.”

Classmate Ashley Giller, also a fledgling flautist, said she had only ever played recorder, “but I really like the sound” the flute makes.

Indoors, middle school band Director Mark Lago was teaching trombone and trumpet greenhorns to make like they were watermelon seed-spitting champions.

Ransom Warner admitted he had never thought about playing an instrument before he tried the trumpet for the first time. 

So could he now be swayed? “Yeah,” he said with a happy shrug.

All district fifth-graders are benefitting from a band restructure that kicked off a few weeks ago. Previously, they could choose band or choir in the first semester; this year, all 209 of them get to try an instrument — what is known in the band world as the big four: flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone — before deciding whether to stay in band or move to choir in the second semester. 

“It’s a bit of a trial balloon, but I think it’s going to be successful,” said high-school band Director Greg Wells, who will co-teach fifth-graders with middle school band Director Mark Lago and team teacher and co-director Hilary Hunsberger. “I’m truly excited.”

Building Culture & Connection

Lago said band and choir numbers have dropped since the pandemic; last year there was no band or choir in fifth or sixth grade due to physical distancing and safety requirements. 

“One of the key parts of music is the culture and connections,” he said. “There’s an aspect there, another layer of connection with everyone else. The best bands out there are a kind of family. COVID literally removed that (for middle-schoolers), when music became something they practiced only all by themselves. 

“And once people drop, they usually don’t come back, especially with band.”

Wells said the idea stemmed from conversations before the pandemic with Superintendent Scott Korpak.

“He admittedly said he’s not a music person, but he’s a curriculum guy, and he’s continually finding research about how music and instrumental music plays such a role in student learning, and how important music is to school culture and personal well being.”

Removing the Barriers

That led them to talking about how to remove some of the barriers students face when joining or remaining in band.

“Part of the issue with the instrument program is, historically, when someone doesn’t start with it or tries to join, or leaves, they don’t come back,” Wells said. “Some is just the nature of the beast, the way things are taught sequentially.”

“The next iteration of thought was, what if we had everyone join the instrument band program to begin with? That way we all have the opportunity to learn some fundamentals.”

They also addressed what are likely the biggest barriers: cost and access. West Michigan Band Instruments music store offered to waive all rental costs for the first few months, and the district has committed to cover the rest of the semester. For students who choose to continue band, one  month’s rental will be paid by the store, so the first time families would have to pay is March 2022. 

And, Lego pointed out, band boosters can help. “That’s always been there, but parents don’t always know it’s available.”

Another plus of instrument music? “When we have beginning band, we have a handful of notes and play very simple songs. Everybody understands that it’s brand new,” said Wells, a singer himself. “With choirs, we expect their performances to be full pieces with multiple parts, but we can’t teach music notation reading at that level that quickly. Performance pressures can cause us to skip over note reading. The hope is that with this project they increase their music reading abilities as well.”

Lago said elementary music teachers Lou Sinigos and Kim Nagy “really prepare the kids for middle-school music, with a strong foundation in their aural skills, their ability to mimic rhythms and perceive pitch, and typically a pretty good foundation in note reading. 

“This could be a nice little influx for the program,” he said, “but ideally it just exposes more kids to instrumental music.”

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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