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Music Hitting Right Note

Learning: Students' interest in choirs, bands and orchestras is making a comeback at county schools.

September 29, 1997|ANDY ROSE JEAN MERL and RICHARD WINTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Winton is a correspondent. Rose and Merl are staff writers

You can hear the evidence from the swelling ranks on the high school practice field after classes end for the day. You can see it in the empty shelves at music stores, sense it from a principal who is scrambling to find a director for the new orchestra.

After three decades of decline, the once-proud music programs in California's public schools are making a comeback at last.

The faint, hopeful stirrings that began a few years ago have yet to reach a crescendo, music education experts say. But the signs are unmistakable--especially with the start of the new school year.

A sampling of districts across Ventura County, from Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks to Oxnard and Ojai, showed marked increases in students signing up for music classes, forming a small army of bands, choirs and ensembles.

In the Oxnard Union High School District, Assistant Supt. Gary Davis said the increase is most notable in vocal classes this year. Groups such as Camarillo High School's California Swing Kids, who have performed around the state and are set to travel to Paris next year, have seen strong competition for spots, he said.

Such experience is invaluable for the students, but there is also a more important, secondary benefit: Many educators think music education helps increase understanding of other academic disciplines.

"I believe there is a strong correlation," Davis said, noting that self-esteem and poise are natural aids to learning.

His belief is shared by many others, including Bill Wagner, who directs bands and choirs at both Matilija Junior High School and Nordhoff High School in Ojai.

The Nordhoff marching band, which drew as few as eight students a few years ago, has grown steadily, attracting 45 teenagers this year. They practice most days at 2:15 p.m., and their enthusiasm is infectious.

Wagner, who is also principal trumpeter for the Conejo Valley Symphony, said the quality of the music has improved over the years.

"The level of music is at a point where the kids feel really good about it, and themselves," he said. "With that quality comes respect, not only from their peers, but from faculty too."

More music programs and institutions in the community make a difference too, making music more a way of life. Wagner pointed to a new youth choir in Ojai, a theater and a civic light opera, not to mention a proliferation of private teachers, and a cadre of devoted parents who help raise funds for the programs.

And there is something else that can't be overlooked about joining a music program, something that makes it an especially cool activity for students.

"It's hard to quantify, but it's there--an emotional release for students, which they really need at some point during their week," Wagner said.

Most music students say it's an invaluable combination of very hard work, discipline and concentration, plus lots of fun, achievement and experiences they would not trade for any other subject.


Nordhoff junior Mike Deutsch, 16, told his parents back in the third grade that he wanted to play the drums. He's been playing ever since, and now he's not only a member of the marching band, but he also performs with the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony, and has just formed a band called Damaged Adam.

Despite the long hours of practice at home and the mind- and sole-numbing precision of the marching band drills, Mike said it's all worth it. He hopes music will always be a part of his life.

"I think so. At this point in my life, it's what I want to do," he said, adding that he is still considering choices for college, although he may attend UC Santa Barbara.

Fellow marching band member Cambria Bower, a 17-year-old senior, was even more emphatic. Her work on the bass clarinet and saxophone impacts everything.

"Music is basically my whole life right now," said the Ojai native, who is also planning to continue playing while in college at UCSB. In addition to her classes and the daily marching band drills, she practices for 45 minutes to an hour each night.

Cambria said she really took up music in earnest after a neck injury interrupted her budding high school soccer career. She joined the band, taking up the cymbals ("It's a lot harder than people think!"), and taking some time to find the synchronicity.

"I had everyone laughing at me at first," she admitted. Cambria thinks that her newfound passion has helped her immensely in other areas, especially in mathematics, and that her fellow musicians see the same link.

"You have to be so well-disciplined, and you have to think very, very fast," she said.

The county surge mirrors a trend around the state.

At Westchester High School in Los Angeles, for example, band director Eric Hankey has watched his corps grow from an anemic 11 members last fall to a respectable 69 this year. To help meet the growing interest, the school's music department recently received $15,000 in new equipment from a private foundation.

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