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Innovative approach puts instruments in hands of every One91 fifth-grader

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The opportunity to pluck the strings of a violin or cello is a no-strings-attached proposition for every fifth-grader in District 191.

Those are just two of the many instruments students get the chance to play over the course of the year in Instrumental Music. The program, which started in the 2020-21 school year, gives each fifth-grader the opportunity to take 3-4 small-group lessons with instruments from each of the four orchestra instrument families - strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. 

An elementary music class practices playing together

This innovative approach provides access to instruments to students who might otherwise have financial or scheduling barriers, like having to purchase an instrument or rehearse before or after school. It also allows students to try out a variety of instruments before deciding what they want to play in middle school, where they have the opportunity to participate in band and orchestra. 

“Typically students are asked to choose an instrument after participating in a ‘petting zoo’ where students watch a teacher talk about and briefly demonstrate how to play each instrument. At best in these scenarios, a student might have the chance to hold an instrument before being asked to choose,” Systems Improvement and Student Achievement (SISA) coordinator Rachel Lucius said. “Our unique approach allows equitable access to instrumental music for all fifth-grade students, and helps students make an informed decision about what type of instrument they might want to play.”

An elementary male elementary student practices his instrument

Instrumental Music will serve as a capstone for the elementary instrumental music pathway. At younger grade levels, students will learn about programmatic music, which is instrumental music that conveys a story using instrumentation or melody. Their knowledge and skills will progress at each grade level as they learn about orchestral music, learn to play the recorder, and in fourth grade, learn more about the instrument families and go on a field trip to Orchestra Hall. 

Those experiences will prepare students for Instrumental Music where they learn how to clean, assemble, maintain and play their instruments. Instrumental Music culminates in May with a week-long intensive where students play the instrument of their choice with their classmates.

Instrumental Music teacher Miles Kessler rotates between elementary schools throughout the year. He enjoys seeing students develop the skills that come with participating in instrumental music, like fine motor skills, coordination, collaboration and meeting new expectations for responsibility. He also enjoys seeing the positive reaction students have to hands-on music education.

“Watching the students react positively and inquire closely during our lessons is one of the best feelings for me as a teacher! I find that they are walking into the room each day excited and eager to play. I think that the excitement is so high because there is no expectation to sound like a professional, only to try our best to accomplish checkpoint tasks,” Kessler said. “Our lessons together have no music notation or reading. It is a space where all music interpretation is done through sound and symbol. This way, they are learning the ways of their instrument firsthand. If something breaks, we fix it as a group and if it doesn't sound quite right, we brainstorm solutions together. It is entirely hands-on exploration.”

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