Parents, teachers discuss band instruction in Columbia schools

Thursday, October 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
A group of parents and involved music faculty gather Wednesday at at the West Junior High School gym to discuss changing the band curriculum. Rob Nichols, the coordinator of instrumental music and Hickman band director explains that "we're not denying marching band, we're delaying it."

COLUMBIA — The gymnasium floor at West Junior High School was primed for an audience — a large blue tarp left no wooden plank exposed and chairs were set up in several neat rows. A forum held to discuss removing marching band from the eighth- and ninth-grade curriculum was moved from the cafeteria to the gym in anticipation of a large turnout.

The forum didn’t draw the anticipated crowd but did initiate a discussion that revealed some deeper issues within the band curriculum of Columbia Public Schools.


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Starting Thursday and continuing through Tuesday, parents of current band students will be able to share their opinions online through a survey that will be e-mailed to them.

By Nov. 2, the Program Evaluation Committee will present their findings based on the survey and the public forum on band curriculum to the Columbia School Board.

As current band director at West Junior High, Tom Sweeney said he has seen seventh-grade band instruction go from a full ensemble class with additional like-instrument classes — where students are grouped by the instrument they play — to being taught every-other day with no like-instrument classes.

Budget cuts in recent years have led to a domino effect in the music curriculum, instructors said. Cuts in the seventh-grade band programs affect the skills of students as they enter eighth grade, prompting educators to recommend delaying marching band until 10th grade.

District music educators are concerned that most students are getting their first ensemble experience in a marching band setting.

"We're not denying marching band," said Rob Nichols, instrumental music coordinator and band director at Hickman High School. "We're just delaying it."

Judy LeFevre, band director at Gentry Middle School, said a previously “protected time” set aside at the beginning of the day for arts instruction was also lost.

That time was allotted instead to core classes such as math and science, fine arts coordinator Deborah Jacobs said, because of the need to increase Missouri Assessment Program scores and close the achievement gap.

Sweeney cited these changes as a reason why he sees students coming into eighth grade with less instrumental skills than in the past.

Because bringing back that “protected time” and giving seventh graders more ensemble and like-instrument instruction is unlikely, district band directors all say postponing marching band until 10th grade would allow time to improve students’ instrumental skills.

“Any time you get something taken away, it’s hard to get it back,” LeFevre said.

She told a story about a young student who participated in color guard as an eighth-grader. Her father told LeFevre after a summer of no instruction and spending the first two months of school marching, his daughter had forgotten how to play the saxophone and ultimately quit band out of frustration.

Randy Wyatt, a parent of a seventh-grader at Lange Middle School, grew up in Columbia and participated in marching band from middle school through college. He said he is concerned with making sure students develop music fundamentals in the classroom before learning marching techniques.

"Even when I was in marching band, I wanted to be a musician marching, not a person marching," Wyatt said.

Missourian reporter Michelle Hagopian contributed to this report.

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Annette Humphreys October 22, 2009 | 7:10 a.m.

I was at the meeting last night, and I feel this article does not accurately reflect the comments and questions raised by the majority of the parents in attendance. Most parents, speaking from their past experiences and from the sentiments of their current band students, were in favor of continuing the program as it is. This piece gave the viewpoint of one parent, a parent that happened to support the recommendation of the Columbia Public Schools Band Faculty.
My feeling is that when the survey goes out it will reveal the fact that most parents support the continuation of marching band in 8th and 9th grades.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock October 22, 2009 | 8:51 a.m.

But is the continuation a good thing or not? I mean is the point of band to see who can walk in step or is the point to learn music?

(Report Comment)
FourthW Resident October 22, 2009 | 9:26 a.m.

@ Allan Sharrock
The debate about 7th & 8th grade marching band is decades old. You write here one point of view. Sarah Horn posted a summary of a journal article outlining band directors' points of view. There's no consensus. All sides have good points. The issue in Columbia is more complicated than a debate simply framed over preferences, however.
Here's Sarah's post:

(Report Comment)
Sarah Horn October 22, 2009 | 1:36 p.m.

Ms. Humphreys makes a valid point. I did not include all of the many viewpoints expressed at the meeting for two main reasons: I was writing on deadline and had space limitations for the print edition. I felt it was more advantageous, given the space I had, to relay to the public the newest thing — this issue of band in seventh grade and how it has been affecting students.

It was obvious to me that some parents did not understand why the district’s band faculty was making this recommendation, that band teachers were seeing students lack instrumental skills upon entering eighth grade. I felt that I had already presented the many viewpoints surrounding the issue in a previous story (I’ll put that link below), as well as a blog post, and wanted to focus on the seventh-grade development.

The reason I included Mr. Wyatt’s comment was to reiterate the issue Mr. Sweeney brought up regarding students lacking skills. My intention was not to write a story in favor of the change but to write a story that clarified a deeper issue behind the change.

(Report Comment)
Sarah Horn October 22, 2009 | 1:36 p.m.

Here are a few other points from my notes:

One parent attended the forum on behalf of her eighth-grade daughter who she said would be sad to see marching band eliminated. The same parent later suggested to the band faculty to have students march only in the Memorial Day Parade. This would put marching at the end of the year and still introduce beginning steps to build on in the future, she said.

Another parent spoke to the fact that she, as a citizen, would be sad to see fewer marchers in Columbia’s parades. She also proposed that marching band be offered as an optional, after-school activity for interested students. Indeed, several parents referred to marching in middle school as a rich tradition in Columbia, enjoyed by marchers and the community. One parent said he would like his daughter to have the same experiences he did as a marcher in Columbia.

Several parents praised what the district’s band teachers are currently accomplishing with their students and questioned the need for change.

A parent of a seventh-grader at Lange Middle School said the district should not make a curriculum decision to eliminate band contingent on a new high school being built. She said it’s “a big if” whether taxpayers will vote in the spring to fund a new high school. If they don’t, ninth-graders would be left without marching for more than the proposed three years.

A parent new to Columbia said the smiled when she received the letter that notified parents of the proposal to remove marching band from the junior high schools. She said her son, a percussionist, had the chance to play many different kinds of percussion instruments in seventh-grade but was limited to base drum in marching band. She also spoke to the frustration she and her son felt when most of the parades this season were canceled due to weather.

My previous story:

(Report Comment)

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