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For the Love of Music

Shirley Strohm Mullins | December 2008

    Music education in America is expanding in amazing directions. In many communities school band and orchestra programs are growing to the point where administrators now have to hire additional teachers instead of negotiating to cut or compromise music classes.
    Owner­ship and pride in music programs are the reasons for this; it goes beyond instructors, music, and re­hearsal facilities. I have found that com­munities faithfully support public school music education programs if local residents take part in music programs and understand the value of participating in music for themselves and their children.
    The wave of the future is a philosophy of active, passionate involvement in music programs that begins at the community level. Such organizations as Music for People, the New Horizons Band, Orchestra, and Chorus, and a growing number of brass bands bear witness to people’s desire to participate in music. In addition, many communities have church instrumental ensembles, barbershop quartets, early music ensembles, music schools, and private instructors who add to this.
    After retirement from a busy career as a public school orchestra teacher, I started a New Horizons Orchestra for senior citizens. Membership in the en­semble had a slightly different twist because young musicians could join, and many did. After being away at college, some had missed music and playing in a group, so they welcomed being in an orchestra again. Home-schooled students who studied privately performed with us for recitals, and as word got out that people could join, they did. Exciting things began to happen, such as receiving a grant to expand our scholarship program.
    Community pride runs deep when children and adults or adults of varying ages share their experiences, abilities, and backgrounds through music. Every Monday night it is my joy to play third clarinet in a community band. Al-though my playing is truly pathetic, I am welcome, nevertheless. A former orchestra student of mine quietly offers tips and a friendly smile whenever that familiar squawk slips out. We now share music in an entirely different way, because she is the teacher, and I am the student.
    In truth most music teachers become insular. Some even appear to be aloof, a result of daily rehearsals, meetings, parent conferences, concert performances, and the many other tasks ex­pected of public school teachers. Perception is everything. If playing in community groups is low on your list of priorities, you may have a retired music teacher living nearby who would love to become involved in music again. The responsibility of organizing and maintaining a band or orchestra becomes a shared responsibility, and the pride that results from exuberant rehearsals and successful performances becomes a shared experience.
    For a special concert you may decide to combine the school band and the adult band for a program, which suddenly makes the audience increase in size. Magic happens before your eyes when grand­­­parents actually play music with their grandchildren instead of just listening. I have seen and felt this excitement many times. People linger after the program and talk to each other. They may be brave enough to tell you about their background as first chair oboe in all-state. Stranger things have happened.
    Ideas are valuable. Someone may approach you, the school music tea­cher, with an idea. The idea might be impractical or even off the wall, but if you listen attentively and have an open mind, somewhere in that proposal something may catch your imagination. It may move you to set up a meeting to see if others are interested in developing the idea. If so, you’ll need to decide who is going to do the work and who will pay for the project. Great experiences can develop be­cause someone took an idea, shared it with others, and then saw the project through.
    There are many ways to include local musicians in school music programs. Professional orchestras have long known the value of side-by-side concerts with youth symphony members. Youngsters share the spotlight with their counterparts in a real symphony. They share the same stand and play the same music as the professionals. These special concerts occur once a year in neighboring communities, and they are the highlight for youth symphony members.
    There are different types of side-by-side concerts, including having moms and dads play side-by-side their children. It might seem odd to some folks to see a student playing trumpet next to his dad, but in some families it becomes a tradition. Per­forming together means practicing together with no television or video games – just music.
    Side-by-side concerts may be just the beginning. Occasionally our school band director puts out a call for adults to strengthen the pep band at football games. The result is music played with great enthusiasm and a memorable time for all.
    The Musical Bake Sale is a summer institution in my village of Yellow Springs, held every July since 1964. Music teachers, students, and parents play their instruments on downtown street corners, and people pay dearly for the privilege of buying my famous, fabulous fudge to raise money for music scholarships. Tourists are in­trigued by what they see and usually drop bills and coins into open instrument cases.
     Last summer my son Mike, a teacher and professional saxophonist, and his wife Tomoko visited during the week of the bake sale and helped by participating in the fun. Tomoko happens to be a master pastry maker in New York City and baked and sold her wares. Mike played sax with a six-year-old cellist who performed “Hot Cross Buns,” “Mary Had Little Lamb,” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”
    By selling baked goods, magic happens on the streets of Yellow Springs as hundreds of shoppers and local residents learn about the school’s music programs. They may read about concerts and scholarships for music lessons in the local newspapers, but this sale may be the only time they actually hear children playing music in public.
    The community can be included in music in many ways. One former orchestra mother in Yellow Springs simply said, “Have spatula, will travel.” In larger communities the offers to help may be more sophisticated. No matter the situation, I encourage you to think beyond the limitations at school and certainly beyond the limitations of age.
    Ideas are so powerful. Consider the possibilities that may result from neighborhood recitals, command performances, out-of-town programs, community service, or combined concerts with other schools and other adult ensembles.
    By thinking beyond the daily routine, by acting on the ideas of others, and by being open and available, music takes on an entirely new meaning. One example of an innovative activity stands above the others; it is the Dayton Philharmonic’s offer of discounted series tickets for students and senior citizens.
     Years ago the school district and the village cooperated to include senior citizens on the school bus with students to hear several concerts a year. Most of the adults could not or chose not to drive at night. Many said these trips were the highlight of their day. Even riding on a school bus and talking to the students became a special experience. In addition to expressing their gratitude to administrators, the senior citizens have continued to support the music programs in Yellow Springs’ schools. All of these nontraditional activities – combining ensembles, taking field trips, and selling baked goods – help to build strong community support for music education.
    An individual’s personal commitment of time is more precious to me than money. It is impossible to place any type of monetary value on former students who visit, offering to play concertos or to teach. These young adults usually thank the music staff for  the chance to give something back. They raise money by performing, by composing and dedicating music, by inviting the students to be in their ensemble. Former students who re­main in Yellow Springs or who return to live and raise families usually instill a love for music in their children, helping the village’s commitment for a strong music education program.
    Many teachers wonder if they have really made a contribution to their community’s musical and social well being. For me, it is crystal clear that those who take part in Festival Concerts, the New Horizons programs, and combined youth and adult ensembles reap benefits far beyond their dreams. There are invisible, intimate rewards, such as imagining the feelings of a grandmother sharing a music stand with her grandson in band or the joy of hearing a child’s first public performance. Then there are the visible, outward signs of appreciation – the smiles, thank yous, hugs, and handshakes.
    The closing concert of our Summer Music Program for children and adults includes the tradition of having a specially decorated cake and 100 brightly colored balloons on hand for everyone to enjoy. This year the owner of Mr. Fub’s Toy Store, which has provided the 100 balloons for years, asked to make a brief presentation before the concert.
    She spoke to the children, parents  and family members, and community supporters about the importance of music programs like the one in our community, about the richness of Yellow Springs’ heritage, and about how beautifully children and adults are able to share their love of music. Then she presented me with a plaque that acknowledged my dedication to the gift of music for the community; it is something that I will long cherish.
    At that moment I knew for sure that my contributions were truly appreciated. When the owner of a toy store, someone who buys only creative, imaginative toys for children, says, “Well done,” it must be so. May all of you be so fortunate with similar endeavors in your community.