Music filled the air of Berks County venues last week with the annual Berks Jazz Fest.
I attended one of the events, a night headlined by the U.S. Air Force Rhythm and Blues Jazz Ensemble — with guest soloist, trumpeter Randy Brecker — in front of a near capacity crowd at Boyertown Junior High West. Also performing that night were the Boyertown Directors Big Band, and the Berks County All-Star High School Jazz Band.
It was an awesome night of music. As I reflected on the event on my ride home, I realized how moved I was by the performance of the high school musicians. Then it occurred to me that in light of the economic tsunami area school district’s are facing thanks to dwindling revenues, ever-increasing expenses and state budget cuts, 10 years from now there may not be a high school all-star jazz band.
Yes, that’s probably an exaggeration, but because of budget deficits of millions of dollars, administrators and school boards have put a bull’s-eye on their music departments.
Several school districts — including Daniel Boone and Boyertown — have proposed eliminating music in the elementary schools, following the lead of the Governor Mifflin School District in Berks County, which axed its elementary music program last May. Some districts have considered extending the cuts into their middle schools as well.
Youth involved in music are some of the most well-rounded students in a school. The same student who is the lead player in their section of the band likely has a prominent role in the annual musical. Former Pottstown High School band director Chuck Dressler led the Berks all-star musicians. As he finished introducing the band members, he said, “This is what’s good in the world.”
Education isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic. When a child gets involved in music, it opens doors that can influence them the rest of their life. I started playing trombone in elementary school. Much to my surprise, 30 years after graduating from high school, I’m still playing — and loving it.
Music has allowed me to do things I otherwise never would have done: visit and perform in a solemn ceremony at Normandy Beach — site of the D-Day invasion — and play a concert while on a boat riding on the Seine River in Paris on a high school trip. As an adult, I marched down Main Street in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, played in a concert in front of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and participated in the Fourth of July midnight parade in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
These experiences have stayed with me. Had instrumental music not been offered in elementary school, I doubt if I would have picked it up as a seventh-grader.
In a recent discussion about possible cuts to the music program in Boyertown, one friend shared a story about his musical roots.
At the same time he started playing an instrument in fifth grade, he joined the Boyertown Midget-Mite football program. When he discovered the elementary school band would be playing at the annual Piggy Bowl, he shed the pads and helmet and traded one mouthpiece for another to sit with his fellow musicians in the stands.
He, too, wonders if he would have picked up the trumpet in 7th grade.
These are not easy times for school administrations or school boards. Revenues are low, expenses are high, and homeowners are taxed to the max. It’s not like the districts can make up these deficits from the change they find under the cushions of the couch in the faculty lounge.
In 2010, the Boyertown Area School District’s music department was rated as one of the top 174 in the nation by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation (www.nammfoundation.org) in its “Best Communities for Music Education” survey. The survey, according to NAMM, which is based in Carlsbad, Calif., “acknowledges schools and districts across the U.S. for their commitment to and support of music education in schools.”
Whether that same support will continue in 2011 has yet to be determined.
Mike Spohn is The Mercury Sunday editor. E-mail him at email@example.com