The National Association for Music Education designates the month of March as Music in Our Schools Month. While homes may be filled with music, either through the radio or a family member playing great-grandmother’s upright piano, schools are often the place where children have access to music on regular basis.
In the Kansas City metropolitan area, music starts with choir in the elementary levels. By the end of elementary school, many districts introduce orchestra or band. In the middle and junior high years, students grab hold of the fundamentals and start building even more musical skills. By high school, there are competitions, intradistrict festivals and holiday performances. All three teachers believe learning music is akin to learning a foreign language, starting with the most basic notes to the ability to be an integral part of a choir, orchestra or band.
In April 2005, Dr. Stephen Pelkey, orchestra teacher at Antioch Middle School and Oak Park High School in the North Kansas City School District, was one of five national honorees from the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. Representatives visited Pelkey and his program to see the needs and concerns of school music programs and to learn what makes certain programs successful.
And just like Mr. Holland whose quotes include music is about heart, feelings and moving people, Pelkey aims for music to be fun. He even disrupts the usual orchestral hierarchy. Students don’t compete for first chair. In the high school setting, seniors have first dibs on sitting in the first chair for a concert. They can tell him which concert they want to sit first chair. Otherwise, Pelkey rotates the students around the section. “Like football or basketball, orchestra is about working as a unit. I move students around so they understand what is possible at different places in the section. It is about giving 100 percent to the section and then ultimately to the orchestra,” he says. For the older students, he builds a repertoire of both classical pieces and spices up the mix with rock tunes for a pops concert.
Playing a stringed instrument is probably one of the most challenging and engaging activities. The right and left hands are performing different skill sets — the left hand provides the fingering for notes and the right hand draws the bow across the strings. “Reading music is essentially learning a foreign language. Then it’s not just about playing your own instrument, but listening across your section and the entire orchestra while following a conductor. It’s pretty amazing what the brain can do just to play an instrument. Then young musicians are asked to be creative.” He keeps that creativity in front of the community through the Fiddle/Jazz Group. The group of middle schoolers has performed in the Gladfest and Snake Saturday Parades and Shoal Creek Harvest Festival. Their favorite repertoire consists of Irish, Scottish and Jazz favorites.
Pelkey says musicians and singers learn how to create short- and long-term goals, work on physical coordination and fine motor skills. “I teach more than music,” he says. “Creativity through the arts must be stressed more. Graduates today can follow directions, but they lack creativity. They can’t think of new ideas or outside the box. The pendulum has to swing back and test scores, while important, are not the sole measure of success. A student may not be good at social studies or science, but they love the arts. We could put more emphasis on the arts. Not all »»
musicians are going to be professionals, but they can be educated listeners. To be a cultured society, we have to teach culture and teach it at a young age.”
Dr. Tim Allshouse instructs the award-winning marching band, the Golden Regiment, which includes about 270 musicians and flag corps members. He has been at the Blue Springs High School since 2000. Like a plate spinner, Allshouse attempts to keep many groups aloft. There are two jazz bands, two pep bands, three concert bands and smaller groups, such as chamber ensembles while getting ready for district competition. “For the last 20 years, marching band routines have grown more complex. It is an artful production. It is also competitive as we put our routines up against others,” he says.
“It’s really not uncommon to have students in one concert band, one pep band and one jazz group,” he says. “One of the best ways to learn an instrument is to play for others.” The students travel around the Midwest for performances. They have also marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Tournament of Roses Parade and other events like the Waikiki Holiday Parade in Hawaii. The group will return to Hawaii this November. Allshouse’s jazz groups have found audiences in Midwest jazz festivals. This year’s Evening of Jazz will be April 27 at the high school.
“Music is a pathway to a variety of knowledge. If the wind symphony is playing a piece written in the 1700s, they experience some of the culture of the time, why it was written and what setting the piece was performed. We don’t have a time machine so this is the next best thing,” he says. “The connections are made to other academics too. Of course, marching band pushes the combination of physicality and emotional strength and creativity. Music is a vehicle that encourages a big group of people to work together as a group. I know that most of my students will not be music majors, but the skills they are learning will help them in the corporate world.”
While educational leaders may want more quantifiable numbers they can get from tests, music teaches students to strive for perfection, to work in a group and not give up. “I worry that without music, we will lose that essential part of our culture. We will be lacking patrons with an interest in the arts in the next 20 years if we aren’t careful.”
Ken Foley teaches almost 400 students at Shawnee Mission East High School. There are five choirs— the ninth-grade mixed Concert Choir; women’s chorus Chansonettes; men’s chorus Varsity Choir; the older mixed choir the Choraliers; and the select 24-voice Chamber Singers. As choir director, Foley sees his vocal music classes as a chance for students to take a small respite from the demands of the rest of their academics.
“I engage students in a different way from their core class teachers. I still expect them to know their music, but there is less stress. These students are involved in athletics, academics and clubs,” he says. “Music makes people better. It helps them with creativity It’s not so much about star power, but that we are all in it together. The idea is to create a great finished project.”
Foley is the son of two retired music teachers and his two
brothers are musicians. He plays trumpet as well as sings. He graduated from the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati in 1987 and his master’s in choral conducting at UMKC Conservatory of Music 1996. He attributes Eph Ehly with much of his conducting and teaching style. “I believe music makes me a better person every day.”
“I want my students to be self-sufficient musicians who can sight read,” he says. “They carry their instruments with them each and every day. I want them to build their skills. I want them to read the language of music. I want them to translate the dots on the page of music into beauty.” He plans on taking 125 students to Italy during spring break. “I know that only a handful of students will become performance majors, but if they find an appreciation of what music can be in their lives – strength of character, unity with others … if we use the metaphor of sports, there is no opposing team to stand in anyone’s way. We can strive for perfection together.”