Community supports Dexter Park music program

  • Dexter Park Elementary School, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018 in Orange. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2018 12:15:41 AM

ORANGE — When Athol resident Katherine Erwin learned there was no instrumental music program at Dexter Park for her grandchildren, she decided to take action herself.

“In my family that was what you did. In fourth grade you chose your instrument – it was like a rite of passage,” she said.

Erwin started teaching her grandchildren, along with other local students, how to play a variety of instruments out of a living room. In about six months the program grew so large that she determined she couldn’t continue teaching the kids solely on her own.

“A friend of a friend also wanted to play… pretty soon the band grew too big for me. I know how to play all the instruments, but I never taught all the instruments so I was getting a little nervous,” she said. 

After searching for an answer to her problem, Erwin eventually teamed up with local music teacher and current District Music Director James Mercier to direct the instrumental music lessons together. Again, the program continued to expand — demonstrating to both Mercier and Erwin the need for a similar program in the elementary school, not just outside the classroom. For students to participate in learning an instrument, Mercier said it is imperative they start at a young age, or they won’t start at all.

“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 awhile, while middle school kids are not.”

Dexter Park Principal Christopher Dodge said the elementary school did at one time have a “flourishing instrumental program and a band,” but due to budget cuts, it eventually disappeared from the school’s curriculum. The school does have the students participate in a 40 minute music class each week taught by music teacher Adam Lyon, said Dodge. 

Without the funding in the elementary school’s budget for the instrumental lessons, last year Mercier decided to reach out to the Orange Recreation Association, an organization that provides recreational opportunities to youth in the community, for help.

“I contacted Helene Holmes of the ORA and said we are looking to fund a program and said there are teachers available, just no money to actually hire them,” he said.

Holmes, ORA secretary, said the organization funded the opportunity for a local music teacher from Petersham, Angela Haynes, to teach the instrumental music lessons last school year. Erwin said she assisted the teacher as a volunteer in the classroom as well.

“We saw 90 kids that first week,” she said.

But as the 2018 school year approached, it was evident the ORA would not have the funding to continue the program. In order for students to participate in the lessons, which would include instructions and an instrument, each needed to pay a $30 fee per semester to do so.

“ORA does require registration fees anyway,” said Holmes.

For students who financially cannot cover the fee, Erwin took to Facebook in September to see if she could raise funds for the program.

“I had fourth graders pestering me about when band would be starting — asking do I get my trombone again, the same one, that sort of thing,” she said.

As part of the fundraiser on behalf of the ORA, Erwin raised over $2,000 for the music lessons. 

“It is a sad state of affairs that we had to have this fundraiser… these kids deserve better from us,” she said.

According to Holmes the money will be allocated for Lyon’s salary to teach the students lessons and for any other necessary supplies.

The community also donated various instruments to the program, said Erwin, from flutes to trumpets and clarinets. Mercier said though the school doesn’t have the funding in their budget, it is clear the community won’t let the instrumental music program fail.

“There are enough people who really support the arts and really care 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,” he said.

Dodge said through the support from the ORA, the elementary school is able to provide instrumental lessons to students in grades four, five and six this year.

“Over time 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.

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