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Reinvigorating Music, Living our Motto: “We All Play Together”

The Middle School Orchestra, conducted by Eric Price, plays a selection from Peter and the Wolf for the students at Lafayette Elementary School

More than any other electives offered in the Lafayette School District or the Acalanes School District, the music classes took an enormous hit during the pandemic. Students were introduced to instruments for the first time over Zoom. Chorus members sang alone at home rather than in a group surrounded by fellow vocalists. Instrumentalists couldn’t benefit from playing in a shared space. Musical performances stopped altogether. The coffee machine in the Band and Orchestra room at Stanley went cold. No more voices filling the air, no more jam sessions, no more visitors stopping by for a little Middle School music with their cup of joe. In a discipline that benefits from being a collaborative endeavor, music was unable to invigorate students or capture their interest in a solitary digital format. The return to school in the early days of the pandemic wasn’t necessarily an improvement. Music students again found themselves compromised. Band and Orchestra students weren’t permitted to use instruments in class. And choral students were not allowed to raise their voices in unison, even while masked. Performances in large, enclosed spaces were absolutely forbidden.

With the worst of the pandemic behind us and a return to classes as usual, students now can engage with music the way they once did. Across the district, they are learning instruments, singing in groups, and making music again. And the aroma of freshly brewed Peet’s Coffee once again welcomes visitors to the music space at Stanley Middle School. It feels good to make music again, but the reality is that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on many of the programs. Music educators across the two districts, however, are eager to reach students again. They want to give kids the space not only to create but to connect with music, empowering students to become musicians rather than just going to music class. Teachers are eager to encourage students to move forward in exciting new directions while building on the strong foundations that existed before.

For elementary students, music is a required part of the curriculum, so the damage to the program was somewhat minimized. But a major goal at the elementary school is to create a sense of connection to music; that is hard to accomplish without those in-person experiences. Students can’t experience the joy that comes from making music in a group setting. And when all four elementary schools feed into Stanley’s music programs, it is important to hook the students early if they are to continue.

Kathryn Fischette, music teacher at the elementary schools, doesn’t want to look back as much as move forward full-speed. That’s because there are exciting changes happening at the 4th grade level, a critical point where students gain exposure to all aspects of the music program. While the shift is driven by state standards, it is “super fun!” she says. “It really is promoting music as a life choice.” In previous years, students began 4th grade by choosing to participate in either strings, band, or chorus; now they are delving deeply into units that cover each topic before making a choice in 5th grade. “The goal is to make lifelong music aficionados and to give students a deeper appreciation for what we’re doing. It feels very fresh!” The results look good so far. “The students are looking, listening, and getting lots of knowledge. They are all working really hard. It’s very impressive!” She cites an example from the first unit of study, chorus, where the biggest guiding question is: How do we use our voices? “When I ask the 4th graders how the diaphragm relates to singing, they can all tell me!” she says. And while they may have been hesitant to sing before, she sees a difference. “The 4th graders are now empowered to sing!”

Across the elementary schools, all the music teachers, who collaborate regularly, are seeing the same thing: deeper engagement. That is due in large part to the time spent discussing in-depth aspects of music. Up next are strings and wind instruments. By the time students get to 5th grade, they can make an educated choice about which path to pursue, so that when they reach middle school, they will have a stronger foundation in music that will inspire them to continue this path.

Stanley’s music teachers are more than ready to welcome elementary students into their program. Eric Price and Todd Minson, Stanley’s Orchestra and Band & Chorus teachers respectively, have a particular love for the programs they lead. While both teachers joined the district within the past three years—Price at the beginning of the pandemic and Minson this year—they were both former students at Stanley who studied under long-time teachers Loretta McNulty in Orchestra and Bob Athayde in Band. Those teachers built thriving programs that Price and Minson are proud to inherit and nurture for the next generation of students. That deep love for these programs makes the effects of the pandemic on music feel especially painful. Class sizes are down, largely because many discouraged students turned away from these beloved programs, which are still coming back in terms of public health and safety. Plenty of kids stuck with it during Zoom, but being unable to sing, having to use special coverings to play instruments, and being unable to receive hands-on technical assistance really set students back. Fun incentives like performance opportunities, music discovery, playing with other musicians, traveling to competitions, and live performances disappeared, leaving few motivations for all but the most dedicated students to choose music over another elective. As a result, numbers decreased.

Low enrollment in music classes has been the biggest challenge at the middle and high school levels. Post pandemic, students and teachers are eager to experience the fullness of the music program as it was meant to be. The good news is that while the numbers of students in the program are still smaller than before the pandemic, they are on the rise. Currently, there are one to two classes for regular cadet band for 6th graders. Symphonic Band numbers are still low, but recovering. At 6th grade, there are sixty kids enrolled, which is a much more typical pre-pandemic number. It gives hope that the program will rebound quickly. And with WHEEL incorporating music at the 6th grade level, students have another chance to get some exposure to music programs at the middle school level.

And Price and Minson have plans! As things continue to reopen, band students not only have an opportunity to play at Stanley, but outside of Lafayette as well through CMEA – California Music Educators Association. Students can also perform at other area high schools or colleges. Minson is seeking new venues that will include adjudicators as well. The Jazz Band hopes to perform at festivals, like Campana in Pleasanton or the Monterey Jazz Festivals. These festivals provide a huge incentive to students interested in the program. “As they come back and are available, we’ll explore the options,” he says. The Stanley Jazz Band recently played at the Lafayette Reservoir Run, and he wants to ensure that it continues to have an impact on the community. As for the chorus, students are singing, masked or not. There are no restrictions. Todd likes to mix it up and sing what they like as well. They end each week with Fun Friday, during which they sing mostly pop music, karaoke style. The kids say “This is my favorite class! I love coming here every day!” Chorus numbers are still low, but with praise like that, hopefully not for long.

Price, too, anticipates more opportunities ahead. He is looking forward to Spring and the chance for some real-world experience, like attending open rehearsals at the SF Symphony. “Going to the city to see the orchestra play would be such a huge benefit for the kids,” he says. For now, travel has been very local. Recently, Price brought the Orchestra to Lafayette Elementary School so students could get a glimpse of what’s ahead. It was an impressive performance! Minson, too, hopes to do the same for band and chorus in the spring. In the meantime, they will both be in the music room at Stanley, sharing their passion for music with the students and anyone else who is interested. And they are very welcoming. Price says if you are “experts or former music educators or who want to share your passion, please be a part of our team! There is always room for string specialists. More hands and more eyes really benefits the students trying to learn an instrument. We love it when the community gets involved.” Minson concurs, and adds, “This is an open, welcoming space; we always have Peet’s coffee! Come in and see all the cool stuff we’re doing!”

As for the high school level, it really is the same story—dwindling numbers after the pandemic. Enrollment in the bands and orchestra dropped, and chorus suffered greatly. At present, there are only eighteen students participating in one section of chorus. While that might sound disheartening, Anita Embleton, President of LPIE, underscores the importance of that class. She calls it a “small but mighty program,” one that is worth preserving. LPIE is proud to fund 100% of that program this year as the school works to rebuild the program for incoming students. The importance of the choral program at Acalanes is felt deeply, especially for the students it serves in the special day program. After a few hard years, though, Eric Shawn, principal at Acalanes High School, notes that “we are seeing reengagement in music.” He is deeply interested in seeing the music classes return to full vigor. In his view, the foundations for these programs are established much earlier, and their success depends on creating a bridge from Middle School to High School. There is a profound benefit in “increasing the throughline with Stanley,” as he calls it.

Two recent examples illustrate what is possible when we start strengthening those connections between the two schools. Perhaps one of the brightest moments happened as the Middle School put on its first in-house musical to sold-out performances. Piper LaGrelius, singing coach and choreographer, has been working closely with Rebecca Young, Stanley 7th grade core teacher and director of the musical to make this show a reality. The results have been better than she could have imagined. There are over one hundred kids involved, all working together in this collaborative endeavor and developing their leadership skills as they run the lights, sound, and backstage operations. “You've never seen a group of kids this connected and engaged. They feel this powerful sense of belonging,” LaGrelius says. What’s more, the Acalanes High School Stagecraft Class built the sets, showing the Middle School students that there is a clear path to continue doing what they love at the next level.

In another wonderful glimmer of hope, the Acalanes Jazz Band put on a performance and was joined by members of the Stanley Jazz Messengers. Shawn says, “It was amazing to see grades 6-12 all together on one stage. That is an example of a huge throughline!”

All the music teachers in the district are invested in reinvigorating the music program, and they are backed by collaborative administrators, the financial support of LPIE, and a receptive and encouraging community. The recent passage of Prop 28 increases the funding to arts and music programs in the entire state of California. Our schools will benefit. We may have seen some dark years because of the pandemic, but with the growing interest in the music program, the support of the community, and the commitment from the state to contribute to the success of art and music, there is so much hope that we can move beyond this rough couple of years since the pandemic. Reflecting on that joint performance of the Middle School and High School Band, Shawn says, “There were a lot of 6th graders in that group. I’m excited to see where this goes!” So are we. We are all looking forward to living the motto of the Stanley Middle School Music Department once again: “We All Play Together.”

Upcoming District Festivals

Jan 19

District Chorus Festival

7pm - Stanley Gym

Combined Elementary Chorus, Stanley Chorus, Acalanes Chorus

Jan 23

District Band Festival part 1

7pm - Stanley Gym

Elementary Bands, Stanley Symphonic Band, Silver Band, Acalanes Bands

Jan 24

District Band Festival Part 2

7pm - Stanley Gym

Elementary Bands, Stanley Cadet Bands, Acalanes Bands

Jan 25

District Orchestra Festival

7pm - Stanley Gym

Combined Elementary Strings, Strings Intermezzo, Stanley String Orchestra, Acalanes Orchestra

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