Music programs in school districts across the state have been slashed and sometimes eliminated altogether due to massive budget cuts. In Oakdale, however, while the music program in the district has seen some necessary changes to stay operational, it is still in existence at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels.
The new Oakdale Joint Unified School District Instrumental Music Director Ross McGinnis divides his time daily amongst the elementary schools, the junior high, and the high school.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity because I feed my own program,” he said. “After fifth and sixth (grade), they know what to expect of their instructor, then in seventh and eighth… It’s a lot of work, but it’s a privilege. It’s a reward and it’s worth it.”
He starts out at the high school with jazz band in “zero” period, then he goes to the junior high school to teach a period of band, and then he goes to one of the elementary schools — a different one each day — to teach beginning and intermediate band to the fifth and sixth graders in a pull-out program, then he’s back at the high school for concert band class. Additionally, he leads the band at Friday night football games and in band competitions, and he volunteers his time on Mondays and Wednesdays after school to teach steelband (steel drum music) to junior high students in the Oasis after school program.
“It’s exciting and good for my personality,” McGinnis said. “I’m fairly high-strung. People like me need diversity.”
He added that teaching at all the levels allows him to focus and remember the fundamentals that can be forgotten at higher levels.
Oakdale Music Boosters President Jeff Hood feels that McGinnis was the best applicant to carry the load of teaching band at every level in the district. He said McGinnis’ enthusiasm is evident and the students tune in to that.
“The kids embrace him… They want to see him,” said Hood. “It shows them there’s something more in band to aspire to… I just think he’s got a personality that meets everyone’s needs.”
He added that when McGinnis works with the elementary students, he makes it fun and still keeps them on task and making progress in their musicianship. He also said that the band teacher’s methods are age-appropriate for each of the levels he works with, including being very direct with the high school musicians.
McGinnis said that the Oakdale Joint Unified School District is different because the district didn’t cut everything but other districts have cut classroom music and beginning band. He said that by the time Oakdale students reach fifth and sixth grades to play in beginning band, they already know the fundamentals of music. He said that’s because the district has teachers Cynthia Hofmann and Kathleen Larson teaching music in the elementary classrooms from first grade on up, making his job easier.
He added that the more challenging part with the elementary band is that students have to meet and practice in a full group, with all musicians together, because he’s only at each elementary school to meet with the fifth and sixth grade bands for an hour each week. Previously, the elementary band students were able to receive more specialized instruction because there was a beginning band instructor who was able to dedicate more time by meeting with them separately two to three times a week. He also said that parental involvement at the elementary level is crucial for student success.
“One of the things we’re doing as a beginning band is a kind of festival where we have other (music) teachers come in and have a band night every month to make up for time (the students) don’t have with a teacher in the classroom,” McGinnis said in his efforts to help bolster the elementary program.
“In Oakdale, they care about music. They realize high school band is the culmination of what came before,” he said. “It’s a holistic process. You can’t just throw them an instrument and a book and say, ‘get to it.’”
McGinnis compared having music education at every level to a football program, stating that schools can’t just have a varsity program because it will eventually fail and die without building a foundation at lower levels.
He also believes it’s okay for parents to sometimes “make” their students play because he remembers when his mom made him play in junior orchestra or go to music camp. He said he pouted at first but then discovered he loved it.
“If it doesn’t happen after the first or second try, then it probably won’t happen,” McGinnis said. “But you don’t know until you try it. Who’s wiser? Who knows more about learning? ...Some people don’t know if they’re going to be good musicians until they’re thrown into a situation… With music, the more you work, the more fun it becomes.”
He said that Oakdale also has an instrument loan out program based on need and a sliding scale that makes it possible for students to play in the band.
“It keeps the program alive,” he said. “…In most districts, the schools don’t provide anything.”
By the time the students are in high school, they’ve usually purchased their own instruments, he noted. There are some exceptions though, such as the very expensive tubas that cost about $5,000-$8,000, baritone saxophones that are in the $3,000-$5,000 range, and drum sets due to their size and cost as well.
Hood added that the school board, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Barbara Shook and Superintendent Fred Rich continue to be supporters of the music program in Oakdale. Despite the impacts of the budget and the tough balancing act, the programs continue.
Hood noted the difference with Oakdale, citing how when the elementary band teacher retired, the district didn’t eliminate the position but decided to keep it open and spread the responsibilities for now.
“The district did a good job of strategizing with some reduced (financial) numbers,” McGinnis said.
District Choir Director Bryan Mills also spreads his responsibilities between teaching at the high school and at the junior high and has been doing so for a few years.
Despite the changes to the program, the students have adapted and added to their range of music. McGinnis reported that the OHS marching band has learned 15 new songs to play at football games to “get the games rockin’.” Along with the traditional music the band plays in the stadium, they have “fortified” it with songs by Lady Gaga, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Journey, and more.
“The kids like it,” he said.
His wish list for the program includes a music software program called SmartMusic, which he described as being like Guitar Hero for beginning band students with real instruments so they can learn real skills for real life performances. Also on the list are machine washable warm-up suits for the OHS band to wear at the football and basketball games to take the place of the parade uniforms. This would save wear and tear on the parade uniforms, he said.
Hood added that they are looking for parent contacts at each elementary school to be volunteer liaisons between McGinnis, the school, and the music boosters.