All that band practice pays off
The Pinkerton Academy marching band performs at halftime of the Pinkerton-Central football game recently. (JAY REITER/Union Leader)
The blueprint for a successful high school band program involves a complex formula of practice and participation mixed with time and money, but participants say the benefits - both in and out of the classroom - are worth it.
"Absolutely, every school district and community should encourage, support and be proud of their school music program," said Andy Soucy, director of the Londonderry High School Marching Band and Color Guard. "It's an investment in the future."
Michele Boulanger, director of the Dover High School Green Wave Marching Band and Color Guard, has been a part of the program since she began running it 30 years ago.
"I think every student gets something important out of it," said Boulanger.
The Londonderry Lancers Marching Band and Color Guard is one of the largest bands in the state. Soucy reports the Lancers features 305 members, including 26 color guard participants. The 279 band members are divided and scheduled during the school day into four marching concert bands and one symphonic marching band.
Soucy credits middle schools in the community with helping to grow such a large program.
"It all begins long before high school," said Soucy. "Feeder is the first word that comes to mind. Each of the three elementary schools has its own band program, as well as a chorus and string orchestra. At the middle school, band is scheduled as a class during the day."
Studies show students who participate in band benefit academically.
The College Entrance Examination Board reports students involved in public school music programs score an average of 107 points higher on the SATs than students with no participation. A report from the U.S. Department of Education cites data from more than 25,000 secondary students showing that those involved in instrumental music programs during the middle and high school years show "significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade 12."
"In my 30 years at Dover, we have consistently been proud to claim the valedictorian, salutatorian and Top 10 students in a class year after year," said Boulanger. "Being in band is like being on a varsity team, but the difference is that a music performance has to be close to perfection or it won't sound good. A 90 percent or even 95 percent isn't good enough - students are taught to strive for 100 percent every performance."
Soucy said his students benefit from experiencing success outside the classroom.
Diane Francouer, Manchester West High School band director, reports the dropout rate among students who participate in her program is "near zero."
"The community itself gets a lot of the program," said Soucy. "A strong band program can grow a sense of civic pride."
Successful programs require a financial commitment, both from the district and families. Large programs employ several staff members. In Dover, in addition to the district-funded music director's position (salary listed at $2,460 in the 2012-2013 school budget), the band program uses a drill designer, two assistant drill instructors, a color guard instructor and two assistants, a percussion instructor and one assistant, and an assistant music instructor.
Kathy Chalue of the Dover Parents Music Club reports her group raises roughly $30,000 a year to support the Green Wave program.
"I'd say 80 percent of our funding comes from our parents organization fundraising," said Boulanger. "The school budget only gives us a limited amount of supply money covering music for all groups in the department, transportation funds, and dues and fees. The boosters cover equipment, repairs, some transportation, staff salaries for fall and winter seasons, as well as scholarships, an awards banquet - basically anything else that comes up throughout the year."
"Money is a very important factor as instruments, uniforms, equipment and transportation are costly," said Soucy. "The purchase of sheet music and supplies alone is significant."
Not every district can support a band program. Faced with declining interest, the Hinsdale School District eliminated the band program prior to the start of the 2009-2010 school year. The district entered into an agreement with Brattleboro High School in Vermont, allowing interested Hinsdale students to receive credit for participating in Brattleboro's music program course offerings, including band and choral programs, music theory electives and music festival ensembles.
For other communities, student population is an issue.
"You are talking to the daughter of a music teacher, so I know the importance of these programs," said Heather Zybas, principal of Pittsburg School. "I have 100 kids total, in grades K-12. It's not a matter of a lack of interest; it's a matter of logistics. We don't have enough kids to field a soccer team."
Boulanger feels the lessons students take from participating in band is worth the cost, in both time and money.
"Band students often describe their experience as like being in a family, where everybody looks out for each other," said Boulanger. "I have so many old friends from high school and college band who still communicate, as well as former students, who want to stay in touch. Not too many algebra teachers can claim that."
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Paul Feely may be reached at email@example.com.
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