Swan song for music program?

December 17, 2012

KINGSTON -- Alanna Pettersen crouched in the aisle next to the front-row seats and started snapping photos. She wanted a close, clear view. This was, after all, daughter Juliette's public debut as a violinist, a goal she had pursued for much of her life.

She's been begging to play since she was 4, the proud mother beamed. It's something she's very passionate about.

Now, decked out in glitter skirt and red Santa cap, Juliette was fulfilling her dream, a goal met in a surprisingly short amount of time. This was, after all, the Chester Street Elementary School Christmas Concert, and Juliette was bowing Jolly Old St. Nicholas and plucking a pizzicato Jingle Bells in harmony with 31 of her fellow fifth-grade classmates.

They are part of about 200 students who participate in the Wyoming Valley West School District's elementary school instrumental program – a program facing scrutiny as the school board hunts for cost-saving measures in an austere economy.

The board recently approved a resolution allowing the administration to review the program and consider changes that could include eliminating a teaching position. And while Superintendent Chuck Suppon has insisted there is no plan to touch any other music programs at higher grades, critics – including union president and elementary music teacher Linda Houck -- are concerned because simply eliminating one position did not require the vote taken by the board.

Currently, Houck is the only instrument teacher committed solely to the elementary schools. Another full-time music teacher splits time between the lower and upper grades.

Houck talks about the program and its success with unabashed zeal. Shortly before the students started playing at the concert last Tuesday, she noted that most of them had never touched an instrument before entering the program in September (it is only offered from fifth grade up). To get to where they are now, playing with a group, is a real accomplishment, she said.

Houck credited the enthusiasm of the students and support of the parents with that success, but she may have been a bit modest. As 10-year-old Jessica Fellerman waited for Houck to tune her violin, she offered her reason for wanting to be in the program: Mrs. Houck! she said with a smile beaming from curly tress to curly tress.

Fellerman started playing in September and gladly showed off her skill, chinning the violin and bowing a quick Jingle Bells, missing only one note. Asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Fellerman smiled again and confidently said a doctor. But she also said she plans to keep playing the violin as well.

Studies suggest her efforts to master the instrument at an early age will increase her odds of earning a medical degree. Elementary music programs statistically increase student test skills, grades, and emotional health. Learning to play an instrument also helps develop critical thinking and improves a student's ability to focus and stay on a task.

Alanna Pettersen – who didn't budge from her aisle perch until Juliette's part in the concert was over, said her daughter is amazing in math, and that she's not sure if that helped her learn music, or if music helps her excel at math. Unlike Fellerman, Juliette is considering a career in music, possibly working as a music therapist.

Either that or something with horses, the proud mom said with a laugh.

Carol Scholl had two children in the program, a third-grader singing and her fifth-grade son playing viola. With no significant music talent in the family, she had no explanation of why he wanted to join the program.

I think that it was just because the opportunity was there, that the school was offering it, she said while selling chances for door prizes to a steady stream of visitors before the concert started.

Houck said the program has strong support from families, many of whom rent instruments for their students, who get to choose what they want to learn. Certainly the student enthusiasm was palpable both before and after their short presentation, which was followed by a lot of grins and excited chatter as they packed instruments into cases waiting in the hallway near the auditorium.

This isn't about saving my job, or about saving the program, Houck said. It's about saving something of real value for the kids.