The writer got to the Rochdale Village Community Center just in time to hear the P.S. 80 Jazz Band regaling the roomful of older residents during the Father's Day/Birthday Celebrations last Friday.
Led by music teacher Towner Galaher and band director Charles Caputo, the kids played for about a half an hour before they packed up their gear - keyboards, drums, woodwinds, brass, music stands - and headed back to the school, which would have been a short hike had it not been devilishly humid and they had to carry all that stuff. The biggest load was borne by Galaher, who packed up the drum kit on a handtruck and pushed it.
Once at school, the children were dismissed until 1:30 rehearsal, and Galaher, Caputo and the writer finally sat down on the stage of the school auditorium - just recently blessed with air conditioning - for a chat.
When Galaher was hired about two and half years ago by principal Julia Rivers Jones, the music department consisted of a handful of old instruments and little else.
He was given $5,000 to revive the music program and later, $25,000 worth of instruments would be donated by VH-1's Save the Music Program.
Jones then hired Caputo, who specializes in percussion, piano and flute and has composed some of the band's works. In September 2000, another music teacher, Jeff Cucinotta, came on board. Now the school has a 40-piece jazz band, a string quartet, a 100-person "Lion King" chorus, and classes in keyboard, guitar, percussion, violin and recorder. The orchestra has played at Citibank, Burger King and performed at an all-day festival at St. John's University last month.
"Our responsibility is to uncover the hidden potential in our children," Galaher said. "It's all there waiting to come out."
He starts with first graders and kindergartners and emphasizes singing, movement and percussion, the bases of music. He starts them on an easy instrument like the recorder; they don't join the jazz band until the fourth or fifth grade.
Galaher has taken the band to the Apollo Theater, Lincoln Center's Jazz for Young People program, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the wonderful Louis Armstrong exhibit at Queens College. Galaher himself played drums at the ceremony, presided over by Hillary Rodham
Clinton, that designated the Armstrong house a future museum.
The members of the jazz band are selected from top fourth and fifth graders. "They have to want to do music and we audition them, and teach them basic music theory," said Galaher. They usually have three lessons a week, and band rehearsal every Friday.
Though there used to be an extensive music program at P.S. 80 - the writer played the clarinet under the tutelage of Mrs. Lopatin back in the day - it was allowed to atrophy by government
policy that deemed arts in the schools superfluous, "like ice cream or cake," Galaher laments. "And the experts have shown it's to the contrary. After they cut the arts out of the public school system they struggled for years with low test scores."
Galaher cites a Harvard study that indicates test scores of children involved with music rise by 15 to 20 percent.. "Music is an integral part of a person's education, and they're now beginning to put music and art back into the curriculum."
Galaher showed the writer sheaves of letters written by the students to thank VH-1 for their help. They're very heartfelt, but Galaher said, "It's a shame we had to turn to a private organization for funding."
Pianist Keisha Thomas dropped by at one point A shy and sweet-faced girl, she started piano at the beginning of the school term in September. She practices every day. "It's a great opportunity," she said.
Rashad Roundtree plays clarinet. Before that, "I had no rhythm or nothing," he said. "I started the sax but Mr. Caputo changed the fourth graders to clarinet." That was only because their fingers are still too small to play properly.
Rashad practices 15 to 30 minutes a day, and not only is he musical, but so are his four brothers and two sisters.
The music teachers could use a bit more time and space. As we spoke onstage, groups of energetic little persons were led into the auditorium by their teachers, and Galaher and Caputo were to conduct band practice in the middle of the noise. "Either here or in the back room," Galaher sighed.
They could also use a van, the writer tells them, remembering the trek from the Community Center.
But the hardships are worth it for the enthusiastic young musicians of P.S. 80's revitalized music program.
Reach Qguide writer Arlene McKanic by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.
©2001 Community News Group
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