|And the Grammy goes to
David Douglas High School
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO
From the first breath of the choral performance to the last ovation for the symphony orchestra, the music undulating through the concert hall held performers' family and friends - most of whom, like most of Portland, are more likely to take in a show at a McMenamins music venue than attend the Portland Opera - enthralled by waves of Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, and other musical styles from around the globe.
The appearance, prior to the first note struck, of two conspicuously hip looking fellows introduced by David Douglas Music Coordinator Cherie-Anne May, set this event apart from the many other concerts and music competitions held throughout the school year: the school musical, the holiday Grotto performance, and the Starlight Parade appearance. They came from stage right toting an embossed plaque with the familiar Grammy icon, a very large check and a bit of national recognition.
The Grammy award has long represented the culmination of resolve, practice and public acclaim for music performers. In 1998, the Grammies began extending their accolades to those with less media attention but who perhaps serve a more essential role in the music community. The Grammy Signature Schools award recognizes top U.S. public high schools with outstanding music programs.
For the first time last fall, the David Douglas music department elected to join the thousands of schools that apply for this award annually. We decided that things have really been progressing the last four or five years, the level of difficulty in what we are performing as well as the consistency has been improving so much that we thought that maybe it is time to throw our hat in the ring, said Jennifer Muller, band director.
Upon selection as a finalist, the foundation asked the school to submit recordings, no more than three and a half minutes long each. You can't send pictures or any video, only recordings, said May, they are looking for the difficulty of literature and for consistency.
On April 19, when the Grammy Foundation announced their 36 Signature Schools for Music Education, David Douglas came in seventh in the nation, qualifying for Signature Gold Status. To present the Grammy Gold Signature School Award during the showcase performance was Mike Jones, governor of the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Recording Academy and Grammy nominated saxophonist Patrick Lamb.
For many years I have known David Douglas's music program as standing out as par excellence, commented Lamb, a Portland native, as he presented the teachers a check for $5,500 from the Grammy Foundation.
DDHS principal John Bier agreed in his acceptance speech, As a teacher I was always aware that they were awesome, but being the principal for the past three years I have had the privilege to really get a larger scope of just how great this music program is. Music lays the foundation for success in so many ways, he continued, athletics gets the headlines but music opens up a lot of brains that would be closed. It also teaches teamwork, commitment, all those things that we see in athletics.
He went on to thank the district, school board and community, Across Oregon school budgets have taken a huge hit. At David Douglas we took a hit, and at David Douglas we preserved the music program because we have a community and a school board that understands the value of it.
May agreed, I really think that people support what we do because they understand the value of what we do. But she pointed out a more practical incentive to preserve the music program, The district purposefully saved music because we have a lot of students involved, and when you're looking at reduced revenues, the more students you have involved in something, the easier it is to keep it. We have a 3,000-student high school. It is easy to get lost, and since we have large numbers (approximately one-third of students participate in the music program) they do not feel alone. When you have as many students as we have and you are thinking where kids are going to be during the day, if you can take 100 kids in a class, which can make another class smaller.
Yet what earned their accolades, and what David Douglas seeks to preserve with their monetary award, is the pervasiveness of the music program. We have tried really hard to keep a comprehensive program from K through 12, explained May, so we have licensed music teachers in all of our elementary schools, and we offer instrumental music starting at fifth grade, so during grades five through 12 we offer both band and orchestra which is unusual in these times.
The David Douglas School District treats music as a core subject area. Band, orchestra and choir count as credited curriculum classes and are open to all students. The all-encompassing program allows a place for everyone, not just the top performers who qualify for the auditioned seats such as the symphonic strings and wind ensemble. DDHS offers three concert band classes, four orchestras, six choirs and three jazz bands. Students can also take a percussion class and a music theory class where juniors and seniors earn college credit through Mt. Hood Community College and dual credit through DDHS. In 2003, the school constructed a new building devoted to the art, with separate rooms for each musical group, private practice rooms; and even a full scene shop with costumes for the theater.
It makes sense the district itself was named three times as one of America's Great Communities for Music Education by the National Association of Music Merchants; one of only two districts in Oregon to receive that distinction last year, and the only district this year. The association takes into consideration a district's budgetary commitment to music; opportunities for students to learn music; the presence of highly qualified, certified music teachers; adherence to state and national standards; types of musical experiences offered; and opportunities for performance and competition.
In order to have groups winning awards like this you really have to have a full program. May emphasized, You have to have a K to five general music program, and you have to have a general feeding program. You can't start as a freshman and have this happen; you have to have a sequential program with really committed people.
Twice in the past two years, David Douglas' Ron Russell Middle School was the recipient of awards resulting in the donation of $50,000 worth of musical instruments. This year, Tawnya Garcia, the middle school band teacher, was named one of five national recipients of the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation Award for excellence in music teaching. She accepted the award from Winton Marsalis at Carnegie Hall.
Despite the strength of the program, the high school continues to suffer attrition as students make the transition from middle school. May hopes that some of the monetary award from the Grammy foundation will go towards reviving a full district festival for choir, band and orchestra. Older DDHS students cited past festivals as a motivating factor of why they stayed with the band, but budget cuts have suspended the event due to the expense of providing substitute middle school teachers for the classes attending the high school festival.
Such events, like the showcase itself, can inspire and underline the importance of music appreciation in the schools. The showcase concert, which featured performances from the symphony orchestra, concert choir, symphonic strings and wind ensemble included selections to tickle every ear, from the traditional to the whimsical, at a level that far exceeded expectations for a teen concert.
It is pretty outstanding what our students can actually do, allowed May, You sit in the audience and think, these kids are 14 to 18 years old, and what they are doing is absolutely phenomenal. She continued, These are kids that give two to eight hours a week extra beyond school for these rehearsals. These are kids that are at school sometimes from 6:30 in the morning to nine at night and within that time they are doing their homework. Some of them have jobs, some of them have children, so these are kids that have made a huge dedicated effort to being part of this.
Muller referred to her students as 'high fliers,' as the Oregon School Activities Association did - which calculates the overall grade point averages of state schools' sports and music programs - when it ranked DDHS's orchestra as second in the state with an overall GPA of 3.72 and the band as fourth with a 3.57 cumulative.
Nevertheless, Muller continued to emphasize the inclusiveness of the program, The thing that I enjoy the most is hearing about kids who were maybe not your best players but who continue to play in their churches, in their community colleges, and who continue to appreciate and enjoy performing their instrument. That is as rewarding as the kids that go on to play professionally.
Many alumni have pursued careers in music, members of Pink Martini, The Kingsmen, and music educators throughout the state attended DDHS. Still, May agreed with Muller's assessment that music students become music consumers.
Moreover, how do the students feel about earning a Grammy so early in their music careers? According to May, When there are 81 groups of fabulous kids represented, to come out at the top seven is very cool. It just shows that these kids are phenomenal young people, but I don't think that they realize how important it is, a genuine honor what this one is.
Muller agreed, They don't know how good of a job they do; it is just what they do, so they don't understand that it is a big deal.
The fact that the Grammy will compete for space among other earned trophies may account for some of the ennui. The DDHS performers routinely place among the top ten in state competitions each year. This year, DDHS took first place at the Mt. Hood NW Jazz Band Festival, and both the band and the symphonic strings placed second at their respective Mt. Hood Conference competitions. The strings also placed seventh at the state orchestra competition. In 2010, the symphonic strings finished as co-champions at the Mt. Hood League contest and took sixth place at the state orchestra competition, while the band placed fifth at the Oregon School Activities Association State Championship and second in the Starlight Parade.
Though student representatives of the choir, band and orchestra, Katherine Westmoreland, Alex Burfitt and Sally Wu formally accepted the Grammy, and everyone from the officials to the spectators to the teachers loudly applauded their achievements, the award ultimately acknowledges the commitment of the school, and most importantly, the teachers who set the benchmarks for excellence.
I used to think class and rehearsals would get easier the better the group got, Muller said, but when the group gets to be good, you have to work twice as hard to get them to be better, you have to stay a step ahead of them. When a group isn't good you can't screw it up. You are going to hear all of the mistakes and be able to fix things on the spot, but the better they get you are going to have to think so hard in advance so you can continue to fine tune things and create something really very lovely. I am working harder now than I was when I had a really small job with not many students, and they didn't play very well.
Muller's dedication suggests that the DDHS music department will not rest on these laurels, that they will continue to seek improvement, but with such humility at the helm, it seems unlikely to swell their heads.
The commitment the kids have to doing something excellent is because they become excellent in the process, said Muller. They know I would do just about anything for them. I am committed to them as people, as well as they are to making music together and being a team, and that is what is so beneficial and what I get out of it and what they give back.
Music Instructors profiles
Muller holds degrees from Lewis and Clark College and Portland State University. She is an oboist and has performed in the Oregon Symphonic Band, Pacific Crest Wind Symphony, Mt. Hood Pops Orchestra and most recently with the Chehalem Valley Symphony Orchestra.
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