front page - search - community 

A fading tradition
D.C. high school bands struggle to survive
(Published November 17, 2003)

Staff Writer

The colors didnít match when Cardozo Senior High School students paraded through Shaw before their homecoming football game this fall. And the big "W" -- as in Woodson Senior High School -- on the marching band uniforms also told the casual passerby that the musicians didnít exactly fit with the Cardozo banner that led the parade.

Seven years ago, budget cuts silenced the once-proud Cardozo Clerks Marching Band, widely known for its signature marching style. Several other high school marching bands in the District have managed to continue, though all band directors contacted for this story say they must constantly struggle -- and often put up funding themselves -- to keep the music at their schools alive.

Lack of or minimal funding, decrepit uniforms, and broken instruments, are just a few of the burdens that plague music departments. For years, directors say, the school bands have been on the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to funding. The entire Music Education Department of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has oftentimes been placed on the back burner as a result of budget cutbacks.

"The school tries to help out whenever it can, but the music department does not have a budget," said Ballou Senior High School band director Darrell Watson.

Thus, the band at Ballou is forced to make its money by charging to appear at performances and soliciting donations. In addition to conducting this 60-member band, Watson is a full-time music history teacher during the day. The bandís current uniforms are barely in usable condition, Watson said, requiring staples, masking tape and scotch tape to keep them together for performances.

Band uniforms are not a problem for Bell Multicultural Senior High School, as they do not have any at all.

"Its not the quantity, but the quality," said Rudy Gonzalez, band director at Bell in reference to his 10-member high school band.

Gonzalez, who teaches general music and music theory during the day, said Bellís band must supplement the meager amount of funding it receives from the school system by charging to perform at various functions. Financial problems have not allowed this band to compete in musical competitions.

Not only does Spingarn Senior High School have a need for new uniforms, its band also needs instrument repair. George Brown, the Green Waveís band director, said that he tries to instill in his students independence, instrument practice, work ethic and cooperation with others.

A recent addition to Spingarn, Brown said the marching bandís "needs are huge." He mentions new uniforms, instrument repairs and instrument replacements as among the most crucial needs.

Students fund-raise and occasionally charge for their performances to raise money for the band. There are 50 students that participate in the Green Wave Marching Band, including the dancers, flag girls, drum core band, horns and the wind section.

At Dunbar Senior High, lack of funding also has created problems with maintaining the 80-member band.

"Funding is needed for repairs, transportation, cleaning of uniforms and to purchase required sheet music," said band director James Wilson.

Wilson said that he primarily instills academics into his band members, followed by musicianship, citizenship and community service. Wilson said the students conduct various forms of fundraisers to help finance the band, and he also uses his personal money to help the band out.

"So far the students have done a pizza fundraiser and a cookie fundraiser and they are planning on having a bus outing trip too," said Wilson, who teaches band, concert music and music history during the school day.

The music program at Dunbar consists of a beginnerís class, a concert band class, and a marching band class. All of these classes prepare the students to be in the band by teaching the requirements that band members must know. Band members are taken on a volunteer basis as well as through recruitment within the school.

Receiving more money than the other DCPS schoolsí music departments is Ellington School of the Arts, but the schoolís music director says that the funding is still not enough.

"The most significantly detrimental thing is that the music education program has been cut extensively over the years," said director Janet Peachy. "Recently, most of the students at Ellington are coming from the suburbs, because the music education program has been lacking in District of Columbia junior high schools."

Instead of a marching band, Ellington has a wind ensemble and a jazz orchestra.

"Some teachers personally purchase material that they need for their students, and that is the reality of the D.C. public school system. Funds are being cut and so is the staff," Peachy said.

Without a budget at all, Benjamin Sands and the Coolidge Colts Marching Band have been working diligently to perform despite financial hardships.

"We do not have the money to expand our band," said Sands. "We also have needs for instrument repair, and we are actively looking for sponsors to help fund the band."

Sands, a full-time music history instructor of a course entitled "From Bach to Rap," also conducts this 50-member band. Deeming his band "a small band with a big heart," he credited his bandís success to his student teachers and the dedication that his students have to music.

Serving as a public school teacher for the last 22 years Sands is also a musician and a music composer.

Recognizing that the D.C. public schools needed the communityís help to maintain music programs at all, Adams Morgan resident Dorothy Marschak formed a group named CHIME (Community Help in Music Education).

This nonprofit organization began in 1997 when Marschak noticed the inadequacies of the music education department both inside and outside of the school building. She wanted to integrate the music community and allow the children to have an opportunity to play an instrument of their choice and to develop their potential. CHIMEís mission is "to mobilize community resources to promote and provide music education for all District of Columbia Public schoolchildren during and outside of school."

CHIME has developed various programs to enhance the music education department in DCPS. These programs include a teacher training program, instrument donation program, "Music Around the World" presentations at D.C. public libraries, and a mentoring program that is co-sponsored by the Big Brother-Big Sister program.

Marschak said she believes the community has a huge responsibility to improve the music education departments in local schools.

"Itís up to the community to help the students bring back the bands in D.C.," she said, "The bands brought pride and excitement to both the students and the residents of the neighborhood. Itís up to us to get that back in our city."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator