Archive for Sunday, October 28, 2007

Music lessons

New fund supports idea that students learn more than notes in music class

October 28, 2007


River City Weekly

This week, River City Weekly features music education with Lawrence-Journal World Arts Editor Mindie Paget. Enlarge video

The show

What: Benefit concert by the Kansas City Symphony

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Lied Center, 1600 Stewart Drive

Tickets: $10

Ticket info: 864-2787 or

¢ All proceeds will benefit music education in Lawrence Public Schools.

By the numbers


Percentage of Lawrence elementary school students who take music classes.


Percentage of Lawrence secondary school students who take music classes.


The year the Kansas City Symphony was founded


Number of volunteer ushers scheduled for Tuesday's concert by the symphony


Grant money, in dollars, distributed this year by Music Works! to Lawrence teachers


The amount, in dollars, that the symphony has raised for area public school music programs in the past five years

Patrick Kelly figures he has a pretty easy sales job.

When parents of sixth-graders are hesitant about letting their children play in school bands and orchestras because of the financial commitment, he urges them to let their youngsters try it for a year.

"That's why we rent instruments to those kids," says Kelly, fine arts specialist for the Lawrence school district. "Let them experience it, and you'll find out the value of it."

That value isn't always easy to quantify. But it quickly becomes apparent in more visceral ways.

Bob Dinsdale remembers when one of his three daughters played in the Free State High School marching band with a young man named Ryan Walker, who struggled with illness and carried oxygen wherever he went.

"What do you do when you're so weak that you can't walk down to the field to march with your fellow bandmates? ... His friends would literally put him on their shoulders and carry him down to the field so he could (play) with them," Dinsdale says. "You don't teach that in any other class."

That's why about five years ago - when the Lawrence school district faced serious budget woes that threatened music education - Dinsdale and a group of concerned parents convened to fight for the program.

The district ended up cutting several teaching positions and reducing the staff development budget in exchange for keeping sixth-grade music. But out of that crisis arose Music Works!, an organization that has started an endowed fund to provide grants to music teachers.

They passed out their first round of awards this year. And now they've organized a benefit concert by the Kansas City Symphony on Tuesday evening at the Lied Center.

All proceeds will benefit music education in Lawrence Public Schools.

Bridging gaps

Funds raised by Music Works! aren't intended as a substitute for adequate support from the school board and state legislature, Dinsdale says.

"The argument about whose responsibility is it, should we try to bear some of that responsibility or not - that's a political argument. I understand that," he says. "I'm not willing to sacrifice a generation of children while we work that out."

The money is intended for projects "on the edge," Dinsdale says, initiatives that teachers would like to pursue to enhance their regular instruction. So, for example, the first round of grants is funding the All-City Junior High Jazz Band, guitars for a sixth-grade ensemble at Deerfield School and small-group lessons by private music teachers for strings players at South Junior High School.

Rachel Dirks, who conducts the orchestra at South, says the funding is helping her bridge gaps in individual instruction that inevitably occur in large classes.

"My hope is that by providing a smaller student-to-teacher ratio in these lessons, all of my students will become better musicians and will find success on their own as well as with the orchestra," she says. "Music Works! is providing the music teachers of Lawrence the opportunity to think outside the traditional box of music instruction and create new and improved ways of instructing our students."

As far as Dinsdale knows, Music Works! represents the only endowed fund in the country for music education in public schools.

"We didn't want to go to the community every single year asking for money," he says.

Marketable skills

When making appeals for contributions, Music Works! board members have plenty of evidence - some represented by data, other more anecdotal - at their disposal about the worth of music education.

Research has demonstrated that it increases test scores. In fact, a study published this year by Kansas University music professor Christopher Johnson shows that elementary and middle schools with high-quality music programs have higher standardized test scores than schools with music programs deemed "deficient."

Key to the findings: It's not just being involved in music that matters - the quality of education matters, too.

Music classes also develop what Kelly calls "soft skills" - traits that companies are looking for in their employees - like teamwork, self-discipline and the ability to look at several issues happening at once and process how they affect each other.

"When you're playing in an ensemble or singing in a choir, that's what you're doing all the time," Kelly says. "You're listening to what's going on around you and adjusting your behavior and your output."

'Power of great music'

Students in Lawrence can start taking instrumental music in sixth grade, when instruments are available for rental. From seventh grade on, students are required to purchase their own instruments, unless they play bass, French horn, tuba or other large or specialty instruments that are especially expensive. Other fees include uniforms and instrument maintenance.

One hundred percent of elementary school students in Lawrence participate in music. About 40 percent of students stick with it in secondary schools, where the subject becomes an elective.

"We're very pleased with our enrollment," Patrick says. "We would, of course, like to see more kids involved in the fine arts."

Eric Williams feels the same way. He's the grants manager for the Kansas City Symphony, which has raised more than $66,000 in the past five years for school music programs in the area.

"A crucial part of the Kansas City Symphony's mission is helping young people discover the transformative power of great music," says Williams, a Lawrence violinist who plays with the Lawrence Chamber Orchestra. "Students are impoverished when they lack opportunities to experience the broad spectrum of musical expressions."

Music education is forging ahead pretty strongly in Lawrence for now, says Dinsdale of Music Works!, especially in light of the recent Kansas Supreme Court ruling dictating appropriate funding from the legislature.

But it's been less than a decade since fifth-grade band and orchestra were eliminated.

"I think this is a good time to build an endowment," Dinsdale says, "rather than wait until we're at a crisis."


JazzEgle 10 years, 7 months ago

It's glad to see people stepping up to support music in Lawrence. It will still be difficult to maintain such a high level of success, because many other school districts are paying their music teachers significantly more. Therefore, the good ones are never going to stick around. We've lost quite a few of them in the last few years.

KsTwister 10 years, 7 months ago

Children who start music at an early age seem to do well always, and please don't wait until 6th grade if you have the possibility. I took a part time job to pay for piano/lessons for a 6yr old, the paybacks were enormous although twinkle twinkle about did me in. Now our kids play several instruments (of their choosing), and ready to start their own children.

Veritas 10 years, 6 months ago

I will always remember Ryan. His enthusiasm and outstanding attitude always put a smile on my face.

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