While some students are getting ready to go back to school with their pencils and backpacks, others are getting ready with their violins and trumpets.
This past year, Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools was awarded the title one of the “Best Communities for Music Education” by the National Association of Music Merchants, and John Rasky, the district’s coordinator of fine arts, knows that it was for good reason.
Rasky said the music program is designed in the district in order to best spread the program’s resources and reach students at an optimal age. In WJCC, students take general music classes until fifth grade, at which time they can decide to join the band, orchestra or choir.
Music has become a crucial part of education, Rasky said, and as such, the district tries to grow students’ interest at a young age, starting general music education in kindergarten.
“We feel that the fine arts make a connection to every other subject and gives the student the ability to think creatively, which supports learning across the board,” he said.
By fifth grade, students are expected to have a general understanding of rhythm, harmony and other basic components of music education in order to make an informed decision on what, if any, instrument they decide to play.
Before that time, Rasky said the district implements a number of programs and initiatives to get students interested in joining the music department, part of which means involving other organizations in the community.
When the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra started in 1984, its goal was to bring classical music to children, said Carolyn Keurajian, executive director of WSO. Now, the group has continued that legacy by working with WJCC students in a number of ways.
One of which is WSO’s Instruments for Kids program which takes old instruments, refurbishes them and then provides them to the schools as needed. Last year, WSO had about 60 different instruments ready in storage with approximately 30 being used by students throughout the district.
WSO also offers a more hands-on experience.
Keurajian said it’s important to many of the musicians to be involved with the students because it teaches them and the students more about music.
“We aren’t trying to create professional musicians,” she said. “We want to give an opportunity for students to play in harmony with others, because it takes so many different skills to play together as an ensemble which can be applied to math or listening or other aspects of learning.”
Keurajian said music programs also give students a space to feel comfortable, where they can relax and feel in control.
But to master an instrument, she said many people have to start at a young age. Keurajian said the “magic” age to start learning an instrument is 7, but fifth grade is the ideal time to start involving students in music, especially in a group setting.
Rasky said the program doesn’t start at a younger age because it would require spreading resources farther.
“I don’t think it’s a funding issue,” he said. “We concentrate our resources to be able to do an excellent job at the fifth grade level and I’m not sure if we started earlier, the quality would stay as it is.”
He said the size of the program fluctuates every year but in general has stayed consistent.
Moving forward, the district, with the help of WSO, hopes to continue encouraging students to play instruments not only because it helps with overall education, but also because it provides a source of confidence for students.
“It goes beyond music,” Keurajian said. “Every part of music is equally important in a piece so that in the moment, everyone has the same footing, everyone is equal.”