Pin It

Getting a Hearing 

Despite the presence of world-class performers and a few showcase schools, city schools lack a system-wide approach to music education. Teachers and administrators are wondering: What will Supt. Anthony Amato do? Third in a four-part series.

Renee Miller has the kind of voice that commands both the ear and the heart. When the soprano took to the stage at Ben Franklin Senior High School Auditorium on a recent Friday, she galvanized an audience of music lovers, first with Gabriel Faure's meditative "Apres un reve," then with a precise and soulful rendering of Margaret Bonds' spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

The audience -- which included members of the New Orleans Public School (NOPS) system's district-wide honors choir -- leapt to its feet with a standing ovation at the close of Miller's second solo. Making it even more meaningful, this particular crowd included vocal teachers from the eight schools that feed into the honors choir. Among them was Veronica Downs-Dorsey, who taught Miller just a few years ago at McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

"Renee came to me singing," says Downs-Dorsey, who has been the vocal music instructor at McDonogh 35 for 13 years and a music educator in the public schools since 1980. Most students who come to her don't go on to become professional musicians. Of those who do, she says, several didn't know they had any musical abilities when they first entered her classroom. An education in the foundations of music, music theory and vocal techniques opened the way for some to pursue a career in music. For others, the classes simply provided a way to make music part of a well-rounded life and to cultivate their appreciation of New Orleans as a musical city.

"Everybody has some type of talent," says Downs-Dorsey. "It may not be singing and playing the piano. But if the child thinks they have some talent, or even has an interest, in music, they should be able to come to the teacher and say they'd like to try it." Does she make a connection between good grades and participation in music? "Definitely," she says, pointing out that McDonogh 35's 2004 valedictorian, Sullivan Fortner Jr., is a member of her honors choir and a talented pianist.

In vocal music as well as in jazz, it's tempting to concentrate on those names who make the annual lists of Grammy nominees or earn top billing in clubs and concert halls. But New Orleans' image and history are inextricably bound up with music -- everyone's music. Musicians here have traditionally shared songs and lessons with one another and mentored younger generations. New Orleans also became a music city because a devoted group of music teachers shared their passion in the schools, teaching symphonic music and sight-reading as well as jazz and improvisation to all of their students, not just to those with proven talent.

The state-run New Orleans Center for Creative Arts/Riverfront (NOCCA), is deservedly lauded. But not everyone is able to pass NOCCA's rigorous auditions. One of the soloists at the May 7 honors concert, Javonda Gibson, charmed the audience with her delivery of "Precious Lord." But Gibson's mother, Carline Gibson-Dilbert, says that her other daughter, Ariell, had auditioned twice for NOCCA in vocals and keyboards but had failed to gain entry. Ariell still works with vocal music teacher Bobby Magee at Warren Easton Senior High School, where she's a member of the choir.

"NOCCA kids are going to be who they are, regardless," says Brice Miller, jazz studies coordinator for New Orleans Public Schools. "They have that parental support." He worries, though, that the dearth of creative arts in education over the last few decades has already taken a toll. "If we don't show a kid ballet in school, how is the kid going to know they want to be a ballerina?" he asks.

"We're so focused on how to pass standardized tests that our kids don't have creative common sense," Miller says. "We've taken all that from kids today and replaced it with the LEAP."

THE NOPS DEPARTMENT OF MUSIC has 109 music teachers, almost all of them itinerant, and a full-time supervisor of music. That staff covers all forms of music -- including marching bands -- in 125 district schools. On average, itinerant teachers service three schools apiece. Only two elementary schools, McDonogh 15 and Martin Luther King Jr., have full-time music teachers, and only two high schools, Edna Karr and Eleanor McMain, offer the full "suite" of choral music, general music, strings and bands to their students. By comparison, visual art, theater and dance have only 13 itinerant artists in the Arts Connection program and a handful of full-time art, dance and theater teachers working at the elementary level. Arts Connection and Cultural Resources, which provides performances to schools, have coordinators, but no district supervisor exists for creative programs as a whole. High schools are required to offer one arts survey course for college-bound students; whether they do anything more varies from school to school.

Compared to the other arts, music might seem to be in good shape. But beginning next year, school system changes will alter the music education received by kids at non-magnet programs. One change might prove to be positive for music students. Currently, most middle schools lack any sort of music instruction, leaving a gap in what music teachers call a formative stage of musical development. A pending shift from K-6 elementary schools to K-8 schools will mean that older kids will gain access to teachers who are already working with elementary schools.

At the same time, however, music advocates fear that the "small learning communities" proposed for all of New Orleans' high schools will mean a new schedule that will afford freshmen and sophomores only one semester-long elective per year. Music teachers say that such a change will cripple band and choir programs that generally last across the academic calendar and build from year to year. (Other year-long commitments such as Junior ROTC would also be affected.) Teachers already complain that underdeveloped lower and middle school music programs are sending poorly prepared students into high school music classes. This change will now render high school music "extremely extracurricular," in the words of one music teacher. As of press time last Friday, rumors about this change were circulating among teachers and administrators. The topic was expected to come up during a meeting that day between principals and the superintendent; an NOPS spokesperson said that any changes would not affect art and music programs.

"HOW MANY ADMINISTRATORS ARE HERE?" NOPS music director Vondel Smith-Sloan asked the audience at the May 7 honors choir concert. Behind her, the singers stood triumphant in formal dress, the boys in black vests and pants, the girls in glittering gowns. But not one principal or supervisor was in the audience, which half-filled the auditorium. "You go back and tell them what a fine concert they missed," she says, undeterred. "If you're in a hurry to go home and read the newspaper about all the tragedy in the city, you may leave now. We want to take time to reward our children. We will do whatever is necessary to honor our children in the public schools."

"Arts are not extracurricular," Smith-Sloan goes on as the crowd applauds. "They're very much part of the curriculum."

Smith-Sloan is a relentless champion of music in public education. The granddaughter of banjo player Johnny St. Cyr, who performed with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, Smith-Sloan grew up playing music and attended NOCCA for training in both cello and classical voice. She attended Shreveport's Centenary College on a music scholarship and played in Shreveport-area churches for spending money. She performed with several symphonies in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama before taking a music teaching position with the local public schools in 1983. She was appointed NOPS supervisor of music in 1999.

In meetings, Smith-Sloan is all focused attention. Her appointment book, however, shows her to be more of a blur, moving from early morning Suzuki workshops to district meetings to evening concerts. In the last year, Smith-Sloan initiated a college fair where marching band members could meet and audition for college recruiters for music scholarships; opened a district-wide music resource center, performance hall and library on the third floor of Joseph A. Craig Elementary School; and oversaw workshops that brought a nationally known Suzuki teacher to New Orleans to work with the four Suzuki teachers who teach pre-K, kindergarten and first graders at six of the district's signature elementary schools.

At each event, Smith-Sloan wants everyone present to know that the music program is important -- and a source of pride. At the opening of the Craig resource center, she made sure that honorees had corsages and that white tablecloths and balloons adorned the tables. Those attending the Saturday college fair in March were escorted by volunteers from the All-Pro Marching Band and given "Battle of the Bands" T-shirts. At the May 7 evening honors choir concert at Ben Franklin, she arranged for the student singers to enjoy a sit-down candlelight dinner before the performance and rewarded each singer with a medal, a T-shirt and a bag emblazoned with the music department's logo. At each event, Smith-Sloan provided her own photographer and her own publicity.

"It's a passion with me. I will not let this die," says Smith-Sloan. "The more darts they throw at me, the more they say it can't be done, it energizes me."

"THE WHOLE DEAL WITH EDUCATION is we're try to shape kids to make the right choices, no matter what the situation might be," says musician and music educator Clyde Kerr Jr. "The same brain power that it takes to pass the LEAP test is the same thing we do in music with jazz improvisation -- it's all in choice."

Research supports Kerr's assertion. A series of studies posted by the advocacy group Music Education Coalition ( show that music education at an early age strengthens connections between the right and left sides of the brain and improves spatial-temporal task performance in preschoolers, a phenomenon popularly known as "The Mozart Effect." Further experiments establish a link between taking piano lessons and scoring above grade level on the Stanford 9 standardized tests for math. In the 1997 article "The Musical Mind," education scholar Howard Gardner claims that music helps some people organize the way they think and work. Gardner also argues that music addresses certain learning styles, something that many educators feel is imperative in making sure they really do leave no child behind.

"Music is math," says McDonogh 15 music teacher and bandleader Jerry McGowan. He points to the chalkboard where 4th graders at the Creative Arts "Citywide Access" school in the French Quarter have just worked their way through a lesson on rhythm and notation by translating whole, half and quarter notes on a staff into letters. "These notes are fractions -- half note, quarter note."

As band class begins at McDonogh 15, eager students crowd around. "Music is like math, it helps you understand fractions, adding, subtracting," says 6th grader O'real Lewis, holding her clarinet. Above the board, the motto "Practice is the Key to Success" dominates the sunny room. From here, students can look out and see the tall building of the CBD as well as the streets of the French Quarter, where the band parades past downtown clubs during Mardi Gras.

"So many kids are not in touch with their creative side, and so they're living a life destroying things instead of creating," Kerr says. He recalls seeing the murals painted by Orleans Parish Prison inmates and wondering what might have happened if those prisoners had been guided toward their talents when they were still children. "When you are in touch with your creative self, you can see life through a different perspective, and you want to create something rather than destroy things, take a life or break a window or do harm to someone else," says Kerr. "I think we should teach youngsters at an early age to find out where their creative talents are, to tap into that."

BOTH JONATHAN BLOOM AND BRICE MILLER can recognize one of Jerry McGowan's kids. The two musicians agree that early exposure to the basics and theory of music is key to music education, They also agree that most New Orleans Public School students aren't getting those fundamentals in elementary school -- a fact that makes McGowan's kids and the students from Martin Luther King Elementary School, which also has a full-time music teacher, stand out.

"When you get a kid from Jerry, they'll be sound foundationally," says Bloom, a NOCCA jazz instructor. From 1985 to 2000, Bloom was the director of Jazz Outreach, a budgeted NOPS staff position charged with bringing jazz education to the public schools. With Miller, he represents the sum of NOPS' commitment to bringing jazz instruction to mainstream public school kids over the last 20 years. Bloom, like Miller after him, supplemented his own work by fundraising and by asking favors from fellow musicians. During his tenure, students from around the city enjoyed workshops with luminaries like Donald Harrison Jr. and Doc Cheatham. Wynton Marsalis was a huge supporter of the program during the 1980s, Bloom says.

"We know statistically that middle school is where you're losing kids," says Bloom. If you can get a student between 4th and 9th grade to stay focused, Bloom says, most will complete school. "We always knew we had to give budding artists a comprehensive arts experience, to catch them in their formative years when they're open and receptive."

In 2000, Miller took over Bloom's position and changed the title to "jazz studies coordinator." Last October, during NOPS' first Jazz Awareness Month, he distributed a jazz timeline and curriculum to teachers. He also expanded the number of middle and high schools where jazz workshops are held from four to five, and raised $250,000 to fund an internship program through an alliance with University of New Orleans, Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Louis Armstrong Foundation. The program, which is now one semester old, brings UNO graduate students into five schools to work as jazz teaching assistants.

Miller is an energetic musician, musical producer and father. At 30, he's also a walking example that music can provide opportunities -- a lesson instilled in him by legendary band teacher Donald J. Richardson, who taught him at Andrew J. Bell Jr. High School.

"Mr. Richardson instilled musicianship," says Miller. By 8th grade, he says, his Bell teacher had him playing first trumpet; by 9th grade, Miller was section leader, then band captain. Richardson pushed him further, encouraging him to enter St. Augustine High School on a music scholarship. Miller did, then went on to win another scholarship to Xavier University. In doing so, he became the first member of his family to go straight from high school to college, then the first to graduate from college.

"Richardson taught me I should make my living with my horn," says Miller. "He taught me music can opens doors. I tell my students the same thing." During a recent weekend, he brought one of his jazz students with him while he oversaw production of a Mardi Gras Indian performance for a convention. He also gave the student advice about setting up his own brass band, talking him through everything from phone manners to business cards.

"POLITCALLY, YOU CAN KILL SOMEBODY by saying they're anti-business, but they wouldn't even turn a hair if you labeled them 'anti-arts,'" Al Kennedy says. As NOPS publicist from the late 1970s until 1999, Kennedy knows how politicians think. With the publication of his 2003 book Chord Changes on the Chalkboard, a carefully researched history of music education in New Orleans Public Schools, Kennedy hopes to change that. Chord Changes argues convincingly that New Orleans' music history cannot be understood without looking at the music education that went on inside the public schools. The book celebrates legendary teachers like Osceola Blanchet, the chemistry teacher who taught music at McDonogh 35 for 45 years; Yvonne Busch, the trombonist who traveled between schools and inspired musicians as diverse as Sugar Boy Crawford and Herlin Riley; and Clyde Kerr Sr., whose students turned his North Rocheblave Street home into a music studio for weekly practice sessions.

Chord Changes also makes the case that the public schools are incubators of New Orleans culture. "Each community exists around the island of its public school," say Kennedy. The students who go on to become performers are just part of the legacy, he says. "People became contractors, insurance salesmen, whatever, but they love music because of their early exposure."

Kennedy's UNO colleague, jazz historian Connie Atkinson, rails against the myth that New Orleans musicians somehow get their craft by osmosis. "It's not in the water, damn it," says Atkinson. "We've got a pedagogical strategy that works here. But instead of selling it, we collaborate in the myth that it's automatic, natural." She charges that the city is only too happy to tout its musical heritage to tourists -- even as it skimps on support for music and the arts in mainstream public schools. "You're selling this mountain in this town while you're knocking the mountain down," she says.

JEROME SMITH DOESN'T NEED TO BE convinced of the role public schools played in forging the city's music. As a Treme native, he credits the streets and the mentorship of resident musicians with creating a musical milieu unlike any other. But he also attended Craig Elementary School in the 1950s, when music and art were woven across the curriculum. After field trips to the hear the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra at the Municipal Auditorium, Smith says, teachers would ask students to find where the music came from on a map of Europe.

"I fell in love with the musical experience at Craig School," says Smith, who has run the Tambourine and Fan youth organization out of the Treme Community Center for more than 30 years. "Our ears fell in love with the music." The students at Craig also staged major productions, creating the sets and the costumes and performing the music. Smith went from Craig to Clark Senior High School down the street, where Yvonne Busch was still music instructor. The Clark band took such pride in their performance that they couldn't help strutting, he says.

For decades now, Craig's lack of a marching band has been a sore point with Smith. With so many musicians living in the neighborhood, it seemed crazy to him that this neighborhood school should have only a part-time vocal music teacher. This year, the school added a part-time itinerant band teacher. Smith is pleased -- but says it's not enough. This summer, he and a group of neighborhood musicians will work with the National Park Service and the public schools to bring the fledgling band members up to speed.

Grassroots efforts like his are great, Smith says, but they underscore NOPS' lack of commitment to music. Instead of relying on individual principals and teachers to make music part of the school experience, he says, the system needs to commit to music at an institutional level. "We shouldn't start in middle school, we should start in elementary school," he says. "If you cultivate the ear, the ear will bring you to the heart, and the heart will bring you to the instrument." Smith's call echoes Amato's discovery that arts instruction wasn't going on at the system level in New Orleans schools. The superintendent has committed to staff development for K-8 teachers, but he also committed to not asking for additional funds to achieve this development. Whether music's position inside the system can be solidified without adding to its $700,000 budget is an open question. As another school year draws to a close, art and music teachers across the system are chasing rumors and questioning whether they'll even have a job, or a program, next year.

click to enlarge CHERYL GERBER


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Pin It
Submit an event Jump to date

Latest in News

More by Lili LeGardeur

  • Roll the Credits

    • Dec 27, 2005
  • Tales of Two Cities

    New Orleans has always had many layers, many nuances, many personas. This year, the news had two distinct cycles -- before Katrina and after Katrina.
    • Dec 27, 2005
  • The East: Concerns About the Future

    • Nov 8, 2005
  • More »

© 2017 Gambit
Powered by Foundation