Music education needs support, but if you build it they will come

  • Dexter Park Elementary School in Orange. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

Published: 10/15/2018 8:10:12 AM

There is no officially funded instrumental music program at Dexter Park School in Orange. But tell that to the nearly 100 youngsters who are learning to play music in a band because of a grandmother musician and community fundraising.

Athol resident Katherine Erwin, who learned there was no instrumental music program at Dexter Park for her grandchildren, took matters into her own hands and has almost single-handedly revived music at Dexter Park. The school used to offer music lessons, but past budget cuts ended that.

“In my family … in fourth grade you chose your instrument — it was like a rite of passage,” she said, explaining her determination to pass on her musical skills to a new generation. In lieu of budgeted school instruction, Erwin started teaching her grandchildren and other local children how to play a variety of instruments out of a living room. In about six months the program grew so large that she needed help.

“A friend of a friend also wanted to play… pretty soon the band grew too big for me,” she explained.

After searching for a solution, Erwin eventually teamed up with local music teacher and school district music director, James Mercier. Again, the informal program continued to expand — demonstrating to both Mercier and Erwin the need for a formal program in the elementary school. For students to learn an instrument, Mercier said, it is imperative they start at a young age.

“If you don’t learn to play an instrument by the end of elementary school it is extremely unlikely that you will pick up one in middle school and be successful,” he said. “Elementary kids are perfectly accepting if they sound silly for a while, while middle school kids are not.”

Eventually, Mercier and Erwin persuaded the Orange Recreation Association to help. The association hired a teacher to give instrumental music lessons in the school last year. Erwin assisted the teacher as a volunteer in the classroom.

They saw 90 youngsters the first week. What’s that tell you?

It certainly explains what happened when Erwin turned to Facebook to raise donations for the lessons. She raised about $2,000 on behalf of the recreation association, and some people also donated instruments like flutes, trumpets and clarinets.

As encouraging as that community support is, we have to agree with Erwin when she said, “It is a sad state of affairs that we had to have this fundraiser… these kids deserve better from us.”

While the current school budget doesn’t support the instrumental lessons, it is clear there are many in the community who do, who understand the value of the arts for a well rounded education. They understand that getting students started in music early enriches their lives in the long run. There’s no difference between music and sports in that regard. So, why are they treated differently in terms of funding?

“There are enough people who really support the arts and really care that these things exist for the students in this area, that when it comes time to fund it, it gets funded. Despite the fact it is not funded through official sources, it gets funded anyway,” Erwin said with a certain measure of deserved pride for what she’s accomplished. But music education for Orange children shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of a grandmother from Athol.

This year, because of the recreation association and Erwin, the elementary school is able to provide instrumental lessons to students in grades 4, 5 and 6.

We were encouraged to hear Dexter Park Principal Christopher Dodge express support for where this is going.

“As this program grows and develops and becomes successful, I think it is only going to make sense that we say this is a priority of our schools and we need to start prioritizing that in our budget,” said Dodge.

That’s music to our ears. We hope the school committee and taxpayers hear it, too.


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