During the last school year, some city students were playing music with instruments that were new when their grandparents went to school.
So while they may have played their best version of a C-chord on a horn, there was a chance it could come out sounding like an angry bird.
It’s hard to get excited about music when your instruments are old and broken, say some Niagara Falls music teachers. Yet, despite aging instruments, the district’s young musicians — especially at the high school — drew new fans at home and away games.
The high school pep band played at away games, including at tournaments in Rochester and Binghamton, and wowed fans from both sides of the stands, with some expressing a wish their own schools had such a great pep band.
“One of the sportswriters gave us a great write up,” said Music Director Brian Scime. “We had sort of pushed him off his table where he was set up to watch the game and he wrote it was still a worthwhile experience, the way the band created such an atmosphere for the whole entire event.”
The high school music students, many of whom have come up from music programs in the elementary and middle schools in the district, even beat out four other bands in Buffalo’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “That was an excellent day,” Scime said.
Besides the marching band, the high school has two jazz ensembles, a pit orchestra that plays for the high school musicals and two competitive concert bands.
All did exceptionally well at a competition last spring in Virginia Beach. Every ensemble that competed placed and the Wolverine marching band received first place as did the jazz ensemble. Student Grant Asklar received the best instrumental soloist award and the concert band received fourth place.
“We are extremely proud of our young musicians and the hard work these awards represent,” said Christina Custode, a high school music teacher and a professional singer/songwriter.
Some of the instruments the students played on last year have been in use since 1966 and may have been purchased used back then, Custode said.
“We do the best with what we have but it gets in the way of teaching and that’s frustrating. We have trumpets with fractures in them, the air actually escapes through the metal,” she added.
And yet, music teachers and students do what they can with what they have.
In the lower grades, Rich Hoffman, who in March took over for the music teacher on leave at Gaskill Prep School, said that his experience working in a local music store has come in handy when instruments break down.
“If its a small thing, a key that needs to be adjusted a little, simple things, we can get that done,” he said. “But, there are times when an instrument is just not working and that is frustrating.”
Still, when Hoffman took his 7th- and 8th-graders to the high school for BandFest, where they had a chance to play a classical piece and perform together with all the bands from the district —including 4th and 5th grade bands and the high school band — they did pretty well, Hoffman said.
“They were excited, they were definitely nervous, but they got over it and they did really well. We got a lot of nice compliments,” Hoffman said.
In March, city voters approved a budget that will add an infusion of $300,000 to the district’s music programs.
“Every year we do something big,” said Supt. Mark Laurrie about his budget requests. This year, he asked for musical instruments and some school furniture. “That money will go quick,” he said.
Music teachers are currently compiling their wish lists. Laurrie says he will meet with the teachers in the music program at the start of the school year to decide how the money will be spent.
While $300,000 sounds like a lot of money, musical instruments are expensive, Scime said, noting that the entire $300,000 could easily be used by just one school. The money will go to replace the worst instruments throughout the district, but some students may still have to have to work with aged instruments, which is a less than ideal situation to allow them to explore their ability to play music.
“That’s the music teacher’s worst fear, that you have a kid that has talent, has an interest, and your not able to foster it because either you don’t have a instrument, or you’re asking him to share with another student or you hand him an instrument in such bad shape that he or she immediately looses interest,” Scime said.
Supt. Mark Laurrie is working to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“The music program is too vital to our kids and our community to have kids playing flutes that are being held together with bandaids and tapes,” Laurrie said.
The superintendent is planning to sit down with the district’s music teachers to prioritize where the money should go.
“I’m not looking to buy Steinway pianos I’m looking to give kids in the program something that’s useable and which will accelerate their growth,” he said.
Laurrie said he believes that, along with athletics and drama, music is one of the reasons that students come to school.
“It’s not truant officers that bring kids to school, it’s good programs, I believe that,” he added, noting. “I’d rather spend money on drama and athletics and music programs than truant officers. It really transcends into the community,” Laurrie said.