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Columbia Missourian

Parents, teachers discuss band instruction in Columbia schools

By Sarah Horn
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.