Home / Articles / Features / Feature / School band blues
Print this Article
Wednesday, April 8, 2009 10:01 pm

School band blues

The decline of instrumental music instruction in Springfield schools

Nathan Hoffman of Lincoln Magnet School warming up for district contest in the Springfield High School band room.

In Springfield’s rich band music history, instruction began in elementary school. By middle school, concert bands performed intermediate literature and pep bands played at sporting events. By high school, committed players were winning top honors in state music contests. But the past seven years have seen district budget cuts, federal mandates and an overall lack of coordination. Together these have cut deeply into Springfield’s public schools’ instrumental music program.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, when band happens, it is great.

Amazingly, music
The first day of band in District 186’s five middle schools last fall was all squeaks and squawks as nearly 400 students of all abilities started the new year. By this spring those students were

reading music, preparing for concerts, performing at the district’s solo and ensemble contest and eagerly anticipating the All-City Music Festival in April. It’s an amazing transformation.

“Oh my gosh, I got it! Did you hear that?” says a young flute player struggling to master a new section from the movie The Incredibles music in band director Hewitt Gage’s eighth-grade band at Jefferson Middle School. “I didn’t even know I played that right until I heard it!”

“It just takes work,” says Gage, perennial encourager. “And that’s a good thing. Only challenging music makes you better. Once we learn it, it will sound wonderful. That’s what I want for you. The best.”

“‘Can’t’ is a curse word,” Gage continues, as the students open their music to a new section. “‘Hard’ is a good thing. You guys are on the verge. You’ve got the potential to do it, to be

Annabel Kuhn of Lincoln Magnet School.

among the best in the district. Here’s what has to happen. I give you the tools here in class. You take that music home and work at it. And we’ll come back and do it together. No excuses. That’s the strategy. Keep trying. This is well within your reach. Just slow it down, one note at a time.”

Faith Middleton plays clarinet at Jefferson. “I just love music. It’s a big part of my life. It calms me down.” Megan Childers also plays clarinet in Gage’s band. Her mother, Mary, hopes she’ll continue playing in high school. “I told Megan, ‘the more things you can put on a college application, the more it will help you out.’ Who knows, it may help her get a scholarship. She wants to be a veterinarian. With the cost of college these days, it’s going to be expensive.”

Sarah Struck of Franklin Middle School.

Gage shuttles between Jefferson and

Feitshans, one of the only two elementary schools to still offer beginning band instruction in the district. Iles is the other one.

There’s a lot of enthusiasm for music at Feitshans. One of Gage’s ensembles is a bell choir that played at last year’s Illinois Symphony Orchestra holiday pops matinee. A row of bright, happy children lined up at the edge of the stage, Gage kneeling in front flashing colored cue cards for direction. Among the best guest performances of the day, it was a proud moment for the students.

Sarah Struck of Franklin Middle School.

Lasaja Crawford plays bells for the choir, and clarinet in Gage’s beginning band. Like several of the students in the groups, Crawford has high hopes. “I like that I get to play my own music,” says fifth-grader Crawford. “One day I hope to be on the stage and have my own crowd cheering me on.”

Future musicians?

Maybe so, maybe not
Since 2002, program cuts have made it much more difficult for students to begin, continue and master instrumental music performance.

That year, when voters turned down a property tax increase set to help fund Springfield schools, school board members began looking for budget cuts and, District 186 Fine Arts Facilitator Lynn Gilmore speculates, noticed that three full-time beginning band instructors were preparing to retire at the end of the year. That was the first opportunity to cut band programs.

Sure enough. For the 2002-2003 school year, the only beginning band instruction at the elementary level would be at Iles and Feitshans. Even the grassroots Save the Bands campaign in 2003 couldn’t persuade the board to restore fifth-grade band in the rest of the elementary schools.

That same year, middle school principals redoubled efforts to meet achievement standards of the No Child Left Behind Act which, Gilmore explains, mandates that schools make “adequate yearly progress” in academic achievement and close the achievement gap between races, economic groups, students with individualized education plans and other subgroups.

Illinois schools that fail to demonstrate adequate yearly progress are placed on warning lists, as measured by the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) and so, despite the well-established link between music studies and academic achievement, local middle school principals focused compliance strategies on increasing language arts and math enrichment — at the expense of arts instruction.

They cut band staff hours and beginning band sections and assigned trained music educators to teach health, physical education and reading classes to fill out their schedules.

And now, on top of district budget cuts and federal yearly progress mandates, there is also the matter of the master school schedule. Each of Springfield’s five middle schools autonomously sets the number of class periods each day, class length, and whether classes meet every day, every other day, or on odd/even days.

Kingsley Keys, Franklin Middle School director of bands, sees grade-level bands two or three times per week, except when holidays, on-site professional development meetings, school pictures, assemblies and testing don’t replace band. There are a lot of missed band periods, says Keys. “It’s worse because band doesn’t meet every day. During this year’s ISAT week, there were no electives, and we had Casimir Pulaski Day in there, too — all right before the district’s solo and ensemble contest.” Some students missed nearly two weeks of band classes.

Because each middle school sets its schedule autonomously, there is little consistency among the schools in the time devoted to band.

The schedules at Jefferson and Washington are among the most restrictive for electives. Class periods are arranged in blocks, meaning classes meet for longer periods, but less often. So, illness, holidays, and various other conflicts routinely cause students to go nearly a week between classes. And at Washington, band students only meet for half a block — half as often, for half as long as classes in other schools.

In addition, Gilmore says, students’ elective selection may be restricted by other organizational limitations, including guidance deans who override band requests in order to double up on academic enrichment sessions.

It is a troubling lack of consistency, and just as problematic as lack of funds. “I would love to get to the point where we’re concerned about money,” says Gage. “I have so many students who would like to take band, but they’re not able to because of the scheduling.

“That saddens me more than anything else. If a student wants to play music, but can’t afford an instrument, there are ways to provide for that student. But if they weren’t permitted to take band because of schedule conflicts, there’s no way around that. They don’t really have a choice.”

Springfield High School director of bands Kelly Goldberg sees the ripple effect. “In schools with just 30 minutes of instruction time every other day,” she says, “there’s no way they can accomplish what the other kids can do. As ninth-graders, these students aren’t as far along in their playing skills as they used to be. This affects the dropout rate. When they can’t play as well, they can’t get caught up.”

What to do, and why
The first thing to do is restore fifth-grade beginning band to the rest of Springfield’s elementary schools, say teachers, musicians and Illinois Music Educators Association District 4 President Kim Webster.

“At the fifth-grade level, they’re learning the basics,” says Webster, how to hold an instrument, how to read notes on a page. Starting them in sixth grade, she says, puts the teachers, the beginners and more advanced students at a disadvantage.

“You can’t throw them in with more experienced kids at middle school and expect them to keep up ... and it’s going to follow that progression for years.” By the time they reach high school, Webster says, they’re one to two years behind students who started in fifth grade. They’re less likely to compete successfully at the state level, and less likely to get music scholarships to college.”

And they may not start at all. “By middle school,” says Gilmore, “students have a lot more options than at the elementary level. The world of middle school is so huge for them, there are so many new things; when we start them early, they have more chance to catch that ‘aha!’ experience and carry it into sixth grade.”

Don Udey, retired Chatham bands director, sees many benefits of music performance, and the earlier the better. “The experiences you have performing music make you more relaxed down the road, more confident,” says Udey, including the solo and ensemble contest at Springfield High School he recently judged.

“Arts encourage intelligence and structured thinking. Starting band in sixth grade is slighting the students. They can’t begin to play at the level they used to in the middle and higher levels. And when it comes to competing with other schools, our kids are at a definite disadvantage.

“But it’s not just about competing at All State. It’s about what goes on later in life,” he says — employment opportunities, public service, advances in science and culture and the ability to work in a team. “There is a visible difference in the brain of musicians, in the size of the corpus callosum that connects the left and right sides of the brain. Music is an intellectual study.”

Gilmore agrees. “Arts students become leaders. Research shows that students who are involved in music score higher on the SAT and ACT.” The top students in high schools are often band students, too, says Gilmore. But, more than that, “Playing instrumental music encourages you to hear, enjoy and participate in music your whole life.”

Participation in school music gives students confidence, and raises their performance in all subjects.

“Yes, I want kids to learn the notes,” says Abby Bentsen, vocal and band director at Grant Middle School. “But my greatest goal is to instill the love and understanding of beauty that music is, that my kiddos would enjoy and love it.”

The second remedy would be to rely less on grant money to support school band and use district money to eliminate inequities from school to school.

Gilmore does a yeoman’s job obtaining essential grant money, but it’s an unpredictable income stream. Two years ago, for example, Gilmore won a state study grant, which revealed several “holes and issues in our program offerings,” says Gilmore, but it was two more years before funds were awarded to implement changes.

Gilmore hopes school board members will continue the trend of special district allocations and overall budget increases started in 2006. That year, she says, the board provided a large allocation to Washington Middle School to purchase needed instruments. This was repeated in 2007 and 2008. Gilmore also says the district fine arts budget has been increased for such “big-ticket items as risers, pianos, big instruments.”

But within individual schools, where budget line items may be as little as a few hundred dollars to purchase all of the supplies and equipment for more than 100 students, or there may be no money at all, there is considerable inequity. In schools where family support is strong, students can pay for their own supplies. Elsewhere, any shortfall for music, folders and reeds, as well as any department needs such as storage boxes and special instruments, often comes out of teachers’ pockets.

In addition, if families can’t afford to buy or rent their own instruments, children have to take what’s available from the school’s collection. First come, first served. There are a lot of clarinet players at Jefferson; it’s a relatively inexpensive instrument and, for now, there are enough loaners to go around.

Still, students who don’t own their own instruments don’t practice over the summer. They don’t necessarily have the freedom to play the instrument they want. They may become discouraged playing on a lesser quality instrument that someone donated to the program. And they do compete with students who play their own instruments.

Special relationships
For Gage, however, the main reason to reestablish instrumental music as a priority across the district goes deeper than state competitions and college test scores. Band helps many of his students break out of limiting attitudes. The myth, he calls it — “this is all I am, this is all I can achieve.”

“A student came to me (several years) after I had him in school and told me, ‘I really was going to drop out of school, but because of your music class, it made me want to continue in school.’ That student went on to college.

“Some of our students need more,” says Gage. “They’re not our traditional students, not motivated by academics and grades. But they are motivated by the arts. My proudest accomplishment was a music class I had where all but one of the young men was failing. I taught them a lot musically, but, more importantly, they all brought their grades up. In the arts, we can build relationships with the students by the nature of what we teach. Some of these kids are motivated by the relationship we have through music, and it raises their performance in all subjects and endeavors.”

“Getting to know the kids, paying attention, being totally and completely interested in them,” says Keys, “builds an important relationship. They don’t want to disappoint you. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

“You get to know your kids’ quirks and needs,” says Grant’s Bentsen. “You learn to read your kids. You can see when they walk in the door if they’re having a good day or a bad day. Some of them can’t handle any criticism; they already put a lot of pressure on themselves. You get to learn how to motivate them, to encourage them even when you’re critiquing them. You say what they’ve done well, verbally and nonverbally.”

The good, the bad,

and the hopeful
“There are a lot of kids involved in the instrumental program,” says Goldberg. “They’re working very hard playing for our schools and for the community. And there is a lot of parent support, chaperoning, hands on, and financially.

“And we have a wealth of talent amongst our music teachers in the district,” Goldberg continues. “We give a lot of ourselves to inspire the love of music in our students.”

But teachers have been working hard not only teaching, but also fighting against program decline for years, says Goldberg. “When administrators aren’t supportive, we have to toot our horns promoting music and its importance or nobody will notice us.”

In addition to restoring the fifth-grade beginning band and the other programming cuts made over the past seven years, Goldberg and others advocate establishing an administrative position in the District 186 central office to ensure consistency among schools.

“There is no administrative authority over instrumental music at the district office” says Goldberg, “no one checking the curriculum, helping new teachers, and directing the principals to offer the same opportunities to all of our students in the district.”

Gage adds, “We need to reflect on all of our school programs,” such as the schedule and program changes made to improve test scores and demonstrate adequate yearly progress. “We need to ask, ‘are these changes actually working?’

“There are a lot of ideas out there,” he says, such as the block schedule, “but do these ideas serve our schools, our students? Will the students be pushed and pushed academically and finally say, ‘You’re pushing all these things on me, and now you’re taking back band?’ Will we see them push back with their behavior and attitudes?”

“I’m an educator, and I’m torn,” says Gage. “Even with the dreaded No Child Left Behind, I believe in accountability for our part of academic achievement. We need to make sure what we do, what we implement, works for students, not just looks good, or sounds like it might work.”

Springfield feature writer DiAnne Crown can be found smiling and applauding in the audience at all of the Franklin Middle School band concerts.

See related article, next page: “How to invest in a good instrument. . .and make the most of your investment.”

Log in to use your Facebook account with

Login With Facebook Account

Recent Activity on IllinoisTimes


  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed