Emily Grable was looking forward to school this year. Finally, as a fifth grader, the 11-year-old would have a chance to play a musical instrument. Ever since her older brother started playing trumpet in fifth grade four years ago, she wanted to learn saxophone.
But then, early this summer, she learned that Sagewood Elementary would no longer offer band classes. She cried after she overheard her mother talking about it.
The Natrona County School District sent out a letter in August to parents informing them that elementary schools won't provide designated instrumental teachers due to attrition, but would still offer quality music classes.
“During the past three years, NCSD has worked diligently to develop a multi-year comprehensive budget plan as part of a proactive response to continued projected decreases in K-12 Education revenues,” the letter stated. “NCSD is committed to creating budget reduction strategies that can be used to respond to a reduction in funding while striving to avoid layoffs.”
Previously, four designated instrumental teachers traveled to the elementary schools to teach band or orchestra classes. Fifth-grade students had a choice between band, strings or general music. During a routine review of school programs, however, district officials determined those positions constituted overstaffing. The officials chose not to fill them after the instructors left or took other positions within the district.
Elementary schools have navigated the end of the program differently. Schools have the freedom to create music programs in line with educational standards. The music teachers already in the buildings are certified to teach band and orchestra, for instance, or schools can offer before- or after-school band or orchestra programs, said Angela Hensley, executive director of school improvement.
At least nine elementary schools no longer offer the same fifth-grade orchestra or band instrument classes during the school day, though some said they offer the programs as after-school activities. Four others contacted by the Star-Tribune said they maintained those programs. Five schools did not respond before press time about any changes they've experienced.
Natrona County is one of many districts across the state grappling with maintaining arts programs while reducing costs. Many educators have made do so far, but worry about future cuts.
“We are very concerned that any additional reduction for the 2018-19 school year will require a reduction in programs that are offered during the school day, before and after school," one superintendent said in an email. "We have cut all of the fat and now we will have to cut programs, no other options."
Emily eventually discovered after-school band classes at Vibes Fine & Performing Arts. The local music studio added band, strings and drumline classes for fourth and fifth graders in response to students who want to learn an instrument before middle school, but didn't have those options at their schools, Vibes owner and teacher Amy Munsell said.
"A lot of families reached out to us because they wanted this opportunity," Munsell said.
"We know statistically that music positively impacts the development of the whole student, including their physical, emotional, social, and intellectual abilities," Munsell added in an email.
In Natrona County, schools have the flexibility to create their own music programs that meet district and state standards. So when parents at Cottonwood Elementary School learned about the cuts to the fifth-grade instrument program, they began raising money to address the situation, said Krista Reinsbach, a music teacher at the school.
Students now spend fifth grade trying many instruments and applying musical skills they’ve learned in general music classes. The school purchased a line of musical instruments designed for children, including a plastic trombone and a clarinet and flute designed for smaller hands, Reinsbach said.
Students learn to read music and gain a sense of beat and rhythm, she said. Right now, her classes are learning to read choral music instead of simply repeating after the teacher.
One advantage of the new program is students can spend more time in fifth grade trying out instruments instead of choosing one they may not like based on a single day of demos, Cottonwood principal Brian Doner said. This way, they can find out what works for them and then sign up for an orchestra or band elective in middle school if they want to, he added.
The current fifth-grade music classes build on what students learned in previous years — like the difference between a half note and whole note — and focus on applying those skills to different instruments or singing, Reinsbach said. Those are skills students can use if they choose to take music classes in middle school, she said.
“I think that there are some great things that can come from the times when things are lean, because we do have to get creative and think outside the box,” Reinsbach said. “Sometimes those things end up being that special thing that the kids remember.”
Many of the state's schools are dealing with similar budget crunches. Some superintendents expressed concerns about maintaining programs, including music, if more cuts come next year.
Uinta County School District No. 1 in Evanston maintained all of its programs for this year by reducing its budget by approximately 3 percent through attrition and department budget cuts, Superintendent Ryan Thomas said.
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“Music and the arts are a priority in our community and in our schools. I would hate to see that change due to a short-sighted view of funding education in Wyoming," he said. "We can't afford to take a step back. Our children deserve better.”
Administrators with the Johnson County School District No. 1 in Buffalo plan to address budget cuts from the Legislature through staff attrition without loss of programs, Superintendent Gerry Chase wrote in an email.
“This means fewer staff with more roles and responsibilities. We have one less band director due to this strategy and 1/2 less art instructors," he said. "However, there have been no reductions in the program for students. All other fine and performing arts programs continue in place with staffing at previous levels.”
For Fremont County School District No. 38 in Arapahoe, cuts included music classes for students in preschool through high school, Superintendent Kenneth Crowson said. The general music teacher for the small district left about three years ago, and the officials last year decided not to continue pursuing a new hire. The district has been proactive in avoiding layoffs through attrition, he added.
The district of about 465 students is focusing on Northern Arapaho culture in after-school programs as a way to provide music and art opportunities, Crowson said. The programs started three years ago through a grant and include a traditional drumming and singing performance group.
"We're trying to be creative, I think, statewide, to overcome this revenue shortfall," Crowson said.
Amy Munsell reminded the Vibes band class earlier this month to sit up straight with feet flat on the floor. The eight children fixed their eyes on their music stands and sheet music for "Mary had a Little Lamb." The tune rang and rasped by turns from their brass and woodwind instruments.
“Whoa, yes,” Amy said, holding up her arms when the students finished the first line.
She next asked them to sing the notes of the line, and the kids responded in unison.
Students later played as quartets and solos. Munsell praised a trumpeter for diving back in instead of giving up after he lost his place. A saxophone player sounded a solo, but the last tone rang too low.
"Look at your last note," Amy said. The boy started the line again and hit every note. Munsell asked them to review their music before the next class, and to practice five to 10 minutes a day.
“Mistakes are OK," Munsell said. "What I look for is if you improve from one class to the next.”
The teachers at Vibes have at least a bachelor’s degree in music education, Munsell said, and they've also taught band or orchestra in the district. Vibes also offers some instrumental music programs at schools in the district.
"It is imperative that we offer high quality programs with educated instructors, who have their music education degrees, to help the students in our community thrive and excel, not just musically but also scholastically," Munsell said. "We want to ensure that students have all the tools to fulfill their ambitions musically and to live happy and well-rounded lives."
Emily, the Sagewood fifth grader, didn’t want to wait another year to play a band instrument. She was happy when she found out Vibes would still give her a chance to start playing now.
So is her mother, Shelly Grable. She wouldn’t want her daughter to be a year behind others in the state if she competes for All-State band or other high school state or regional competitions, she said. She also thinks it might be harder for the middle school teachers who will have to start at the basics with the incoming sixth graders.
“It’s definitely sad, especially for kids who music is what they love,” Grable said.
She also thought about students who want to start learning an instrument earlier but can’t afford to take classes. Grable said her family would have been hard-pressed to pay for the classes and an instrument rental if a friend hadn't loaned Emily a clarinet, she said.
Emily hopes to eventually perform in the high school marching band like her brother. Last week, she started learning a pep band song at Vibes. It's the same tune she heard him play with the Natrona County High School marching band during a football game on Friday night.
"She's excited," her mother said.