Community Education Music Programs Inspire Students
It takes commitment to master a musical instrument, and there is no denying that many West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) students have the drive to do so. Valley High School orchestra and vocal music students recently performed at Carnegie Hall, and 38 WDMCS students earned seats in the 2014-15 Iowa All-State Music Festival. For many students, those successes started with one of three programs from WDMCS Community Education’s Summer of Learning.
Offered each summer for more than 20 years, Band Bash, Summer Strings, and Jazz Jam each provide instrumental music students with a place to advance their skills in the areas they are so passionate about.
“My favorite part of teaching Band Bash is being able to work with the kids in a fun, no-pressure situation where most of the kids really want to be there,” WDMCS band teacher and Band Bash instructor Jon Lewis said. “We always have a lot of fun making music.”
The students’ love for music shows during each program’s rehearsal. They are attentive and engaged, reflecting the instructors’ enthusiasm. The groups are audibly excited when they are told to take out certain pieces of music. Students silently practice their parts while other sections rehearse, bows resting in the crooks of their elbows or fingers moving on silent trumpet keys.
Band Bash is a two-week program taught by Lewis and fellow WDMCS teacher Jake Strachan. It includes a rehearsal band, as well as private lessons. Private piano lessons with Courtney Copic were added for the first time this summer. The Summer Strings program is taught by WDMCS orchestra teachers Matt Meyer, Curtis Barr, Jeanne Caldwell, Abby Meyer, and Anne-Marie Webster. Private strings lessons this year are taught by Zo Manfredi, an adjunct instructor at Drake University.
The groups learn several pieces at a fast pace, but they always rise to the challenge. The rapid growth seen is partially due to the wide range of ages in each group. Band Bash is available to students in grades 6–12, and Summer Strings program has offerings for students entering grades 5–9.
“It is a great opportunity for our younger students to see what they can accomplish if they continue in our program and work hard,” Matt Meyer said. “It is also a good time for our older students to serve as role models for the younger kids and reflect on where they’ve been ability-wise on their instruments and how much they’ve improved and grown over the years.”
Both instructors agree the daily contact with students is also a factor, since students do not get instrumental music time every day during the school year. Students in the programs rehearse every day, and some take part in musicianship classes and sectional rehearsals.
The third program takes a more specific approach. Jazz Jam, hosted at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School this year, is for students who have an interest in jazz music. WDMCS band teacher Greg Simmons teaches the four-day Jazz Jam workshop, which introduces students entering grades 7-9 to different jazz styles, from blues to Latin and rock.
“Band during the school year focuses on the large ensemble with a tiny amount of improvisation experience in jazz band,” Simmons explained. “Jazz Jam is designed to improve the individual student’s improvisation skills.”
Simmons then uses those skills to build students’ confidence. Each student plays solos in the pieces the group learns. Simmons said his favorite part of teaching the program is watching students’ performance ability grow during the workshop.
Confidence is just one of the things students gain from these WDMCS Community Education programs, and students recognize the value. The opportunity to develop their skills, while also meeting new friends with similar interests and fostering that all-important inner drive, is too much for many students to resist — not that anyone wants them to.
“It amazes me how many kids in our program want to spend every morning during the first two weeks of summer vacation playing their instruments,” Matt Meyer said.