Alex Britton is a first year band director in the Harlan County School District, fresh out of college after graduating from Eastern Kentucky University. That college connection may be the very thing that led him to his innovative approach for growing the middle school band programs at his assigned schools.
Britton is seeing success and credits assistance from area collegiate musicians and their professors as a factor as they have assisted at Wallins and Cawood Elementary Schools as well.
Among those helping are Douglas Olenik, professor and director of bands at Union College, and Shawn Sudduth, associate professor of music education at the University of the Cumberlands, and a group of Sudduth’s music majors.
“This is a wonderful educational opportunity for the elementary school band students to get to hear great collegiate musicians as well as giving the college students a chance to work one on one with students in the public schools,” said Britton. “The students at James A. Cawood Elementary School are extremely excited about getting better at their instruments. There are many opportunities that await these musically gifted students.”
With the number of kids interested in band increasing, Britton tapped his resources and called upon the surrounding colleges to help make the JACES band a quality program.
“This is very common and normal for college music students to get experience working with younger students in the public schools,” added Britton. “It has been a breath of fresh air for me, but the students get to interact with college music students and see where music can take them. My students learn that when they do go to college, there are students that study medicine, science, math and others, but still play instruments. Not only that, the students get excited to hear other growing musicians at higher levels and learning from them. It is also a chance for me to interact with a college director and get their opinions on things such as rehearsal technique, teaching strategies, classroom management, and it can even help college students with their own individual playing. “
Principal John Carter said he is pleased with what he has seen take place in his program this year.
“Mr. Britton has taken our band program to a whole new level. These kids absolutely love band and it shows by their performances. What an asset and a blessing he’s been to our school and band has been to our curriculum,” said Carter.
Sudduth noted music programs in the region face challenges in funding, awareness, staffing and resources. Understanding those challenges, the University of the Cumberlands Collegiate Chapter of National Association for Music Education (CNAfME) committed to helping grow the band programs, visiting schools weekly.
“Music is such a positive tool for engaging students in meaningful and productive skills. By playing an instrument or learning to sing in a group, students learn wonderful attributes such as teamwork, self-discipline, self-worth, creativity, independence, responsibility, just to name a few,” said Sudduth. “Our goal is to physically be present in classrooms and rehearsals to assist directors by coaching sectionals, giving one-on-one lessons, helping with music or instrument maintenance and being a second set of eyes and ears for the teacher. Our most important goal is to inspire young musicians by performing for them, helping them learn and improve, and by encouraging them to excel at music and as a person. By setting a great example we hope to inspire them to take pride in what they are learning and to continue to be part of a wonderful activity — band or choir — that is a positive influence throughout their school years and hopefully on into adulthood.”
Olenik agrees, saying that is why he helps out in schools.
“As a music teacher, I know that one person is not enough to teach a full band of students. Really, there should be a teacher for every instrument with every band program – though there are obvious financial implications with that kind of man/woman-power. So, whenever there are meetings especially with our district, I always remind the area band directors that I am here to help whenever it is needed/when I can go around my own teaching schedule,” said Olenik.
He said musicians inherently feel a need to help other musicians. “Since we work together as performers, for the most part, it transfers to teaching,” said Olenik. “And, to be honest, teaching and playing music is fun. So I don’t mind doing it whenever I get the opportunity.”
Complimenting Britton for his work, Sudduth said with any activity the most critical time is the early exposure to fundamental skills.
“For musicians that time typically starts in elementary and middle school when students have the opportunity to join band or choir,” said Sudduth. “The key to a strong and vital band program is dependent upon the time and effort made at the beginning and middle school levels. Harlan County can continue to grow the band program by making time for and providing emphasis on the beginning band classes and then by continued support through scheduling considerations and financial support when necessary at all levels. “
Sudduth was pleased with the number of students in the JACES program. “The fact that we observed so many students in the first year beginning band class at JACES was really exciting. Those students were very motivated and clearly learning and loving music.”
District leadership plays an important role in this process, she said, noting “When the school is supportive of that student effort and provides the necessary time and resources, students understand that it is important and take pride in their band membership and accomplishments.”
She said many of the students involved in CNAfME at University of the Cumberlands are studying music education or involved in one or more of the music ensembles on campus.
“By having the opportunity to visit schools, observe teachers of all experience levels, and work with real children, they have a golden opportunity to practice and observe skills that will be imperative as an educator, or almost any other professional role,” said Sudduth. “It is also wonderful for them to be able to see such a wide variety of schools, teaching styles and management systems.”
Sudduth said her students are “touched”each time by the children they meet. “They want to impart their own love and passion for playing and singing to the kids they work with and meet. By working in actual classrooms, they are seeing that they have the power to influence young people and that through music, they can literally change lives by sharing their gifts and by being positive, encouraging and motivating students to pursue something they love — music.”
Britton, Olenik and Sudduth all agree music impacts student performance in other academic areas.
“There are countless studies proving that music helps with so many cross-over skills, let alone test scores,” said Olenik. “I always thought that schools should require students to start band or choir at fifth grade, and keep it required through eighth or ninth grade. Many students will drop band as they transition to high school, but so many of the students that stick with it find that music is even more fun at higher levels. After that fourth or fifth year of playing an instrument, then moving up to high school playing with older students who play even better; all that can really inspire a student who may not have seemed like music was a viable career option for them, to actually pursue it. Plus, you do the math, Harlan would have quite a large program!”
Olenik made shared an observation from throughout his career. “If there is one thing I have learned over the years; whether a student comes from a wealthy background, or a lower income/broken home background, the note ‘C’ always sounds the same and is played the same on a trumpet, trombone, clarinet or saxophone,” said Olenik.