VH1 Saves The Schools’ Music

Melissa Bailey PhotoIn the first-ever practice with their school’s new band, budding brass players learned to puff less, buzz more—and rein in the great power that comes with blowing the trombone.

The lesson came Friday morning at Columbus Family Academy, a pre-K to 8 public school at Blatchley and Grand avenues in the heart of Fair Haven.

The school launched a 36-person band in the fall thanks to a $30,000 donation of equipment from the not-for-profit VH1 Save The Music Foundation, which targets schools that did not previously have bands. The ensemble is the 34th school band in New Haven’s public school district, and the 13th financed by VH1 since 2005.

Now all the city’s elementary schools have bands except MicroSociety School, according to Ellen Maust, the school system music supervisor. VH1 plans to make a similar donation to that school next year, she said, bringing its total investment in New Haven schools to $400,000.

Before this fall, students at Columbus had access only to rudimentary instruments like recorders in their general music class. Now 36 students in the 5th and 6th grades have spent the past few months picking up the trumpet, flute, and saxophone in small group lessons.

Band director Jose Lara, who moonlights in a salsa band, held the Columbus band’s first-ever group practice session Friday. First, he led warmups by tooting his trombone.

“Do you know what’s wrong?” he called out to Avontay Yarbrough.

“I’m puffing,” Avontay replied.

When you puff your cheeks, Avontay explained to a reporter, the sound gets distorted. “You’re supposed to buzz instead of puff your cheeks.”

Lara proceeded to teach a concept called “balance”—making sure, for example, that the blaring brass doesn’t drown out the sweet, light flute. To illustrate the point, he had three waves of students play a tonic chord in B flat. (That’s a 1-3-5, or do-mi-so, on a B-flat scale.)

First, the trombonists pulled in their slides all the way in close to deliver a B flat into the classroom.

The clarinets followed ...

... and then the flutes.

Click on the play arrow at the top of this story to listen.

“Audience, what do we need more of, and what do we need less of?” Lara asked.

“We need more air!” panted clarinetist Brandon Oliveras.

Another student gave the answer Lara was looking for: More flute, less trombone.

“The flute has a very pretty voice,” Lara said. “We don’t want to drown it out.”

To reinforce the concept, he asked the students what Spiderman would say.

“With great power ...” he began.

“... comes great responsibility,” finished Avontay.

Wield the trombone’s mighty power with restraint, he urged. He asked the trombonists to be “as light as possible” and the flutists to use their diaphragms to belt out a stronger note.

They took it again from the top: “Let’s try to get a nice, round, balanced sound.”

Principal Abie Benitez, who watched the beginning of the rehearsal, said the 480 students at Columbus are already stretching their minds around two languages. The school is 93 percent Latino, with about 42 percent English-language learners; all students study in both English and Spanish. A rigorous music curriculum, she said, “helps expand the bilingual brain.”

The VH1 foundation provided the instruments to start up a band; the school district then hired Lara. It will have to pay his salary and ongoing costs of maintaining and replacing the brass, percussion and winds. Since 1997, the VH1 Save The Music Foundation has donated $49.5 million to 1,850 public schools in 192 school districts, putting new instruments in the hands of 2.1 million children, according to spokeswoman Jaclyn Shea.

Research says kids who learn music perform better in math and reading, said Maust, the music supervisor. She said New Haven has made a major investment in the area: the school system now has 75 music teachers. And in her 33 years with the school district, there have been no cuts to music staff, she said. “The district believes in [educating] the whole child.”

Benitez added another benefit: Kids who see their own progress in music have higher self-esteem.

“For these young people, having an instrument is a sense of pride,” she said.

Adamaris Lopez, 10, agreed. Like all the other kids in band, she gets to take home her instrument to practice. At Christmas, she performed “Hot Cross Buns” on her flute in front of a large group of family members including mom, grandma, sisters, an aunt, and some cousins.

“Awesome,” she said of her time learning the flute.

Avontay and Hector, the trombonists, said they practice their instruments at home, in the hallways, and sometimes twice in a day.

Avontay declared band his “second-most” favorite class, behind gym.

“Mine too,” said Hector. He carefully removed the slide and placed his horn inside its fuzzy case, ready to be carried home.

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posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on January 29, 2013  10:56am


Just wondering, is it coincidence that the flutes all seem to be played by girls, and the trumpets and trombones by boys?  Did somebody just assign girls to the high, thin, “pretty” voice and boys to the louder more domineering voice?  Or did the kids sort themselves and buy into gender stereotypes?