Ode to the ‘band kids’

You don’t usually hear about the kids in the school band getting into trouble. They tend not to jump on tables at lunch doing the Harlem Shake, or suspended from band for making sex tapes, and they’re not usually the schoolyard bullies. Band — music programs — must be doing something right, or the programs just seem to attract a decent brand of child.

It’s getting to be budget time in the nation’s schools, and many districts are gearing up for fall levy votes.

In Stillwater schools, the Patch reports, administrators are planning to cut the fifth- and sixth-grade music programs to save $300,000. The high school music department suggested the system might as well cut the high school band; it’d be a more honest cut, they said.

“If you eliminate the high school program, it would be more honest because the elimination of 10-12 would allow for future times when economics were better. We know that eliminating the high school program allows for the entire program to heal. It may take seven to ten years to get it back to where it is now, but it would provide us the greatest opportunity,” Stillwater Area High School Orchestra Director Jerry Jones said last week.

And tomorrow the school board will hold an all-day workshop to consider the idea if an operating levy isn’t renewed.

It’s not just music that’s involved in the cuts– far from it. The music programs are a small part of the $11 million pie. There’s also all-day kindergarten, busing cuts, 7th and 8th grade athletics, and bigger class sizes. The district is also considering a four-day week.

But music is a big deal in Stillwater and has been for years. Its band has consistently received high reviews for its work and has appeared throughout the country.

Still, music doesn’t generate the buzz of Friday night lights, so in a week in which high school athletics has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, snuffing out the music programs at the age when children begin to develop their love of the arts has barely created a ripple.

“Music performance teaches young people to conquer fear and to take risks, “The Children’s Music Workshop says. “A little anxiety is a good thing, and something that will occur often in life. Dealing with it early and often makes it less of a problem later. Risk-taking is essential if a child is to fully develop his or her potential. Music contributes to mental health and can help prevent risky behavior such as teenage drug abuse.”

Indeed, it was nearly impossible to read the stories out of Stillwater this week, and not think of Zach Sobiech, the Stillwater High School senior with cancer, who is using music to say goodbye.

The sacrifice of arts programs in schools isn’t limited to Stillwater, of course. Today, for example, the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized in favor of restoring funding for music programs in Utah schools. The legislature there cut it in half last year.

For example, math and music are very much two sides of an academic coin. Music study helps teach the concepts of whole numbers and fractions. Some studies show the same part of the brain is used to play the piano and to solve math problems. Strengthening one skill helps strengthen the other.

Children involved in the arts program have improved their performance on standardized test scores. The program also keeps children interested in school by giving artistic expression to sometimes boring tasks.

What can be done? Perhaps a group in Willmar provides a clue. The school system there cut music programs and fifth-grade band four years ago. The group Music Matters in Willmar formed to try to raise some money to keep a spark alive. It raised about $28,000 a year to keep the elementary-level orchestra going.

Is it the answer? Probably not. But the first step is finding out that someone cares enough to try.