SPRINGFIELD — Everyone has heard the narrative: struggling urban schools, a budget shortage, and further cuts to music education, because the arts are regarded as fat we can afford to trim.
But there’s a problem with assuming that music education is easily disposable: It’s not. Just look at what’s happening in Springfield.
One recent Thursday afternoon, 300 band members from this city’s High School of Science and Technology were warming up for the school’s commencement at Springfield Symphony Hall.
On stage, band director Gary Bernice, rail-thin with a brisk staccato energy, grabbed a microphone. “Last song of the last rehearsal of the year!” he said. “Do this for the seniors. Make it perfect for them.”
At SciTech it’s hardly a given that younger students will in fact graduate. In 2014 the school’s dropout rate was five times that of the state. Its students come from among the poorest communities.
But things at SciTech are looking up, and the band is playing a lead role in the turnaround. Students who play in the band for more than one year are three times as likely to remain in school. And its graduates are going on to college in ever higher numbers.
“We’ve had some tough financial times,” said Springfield superintendent Daniel J. Warwick, “but this is one of the things we don’t cut. We’ve had such tremendous gains academically and socially, we’ve even expanded the music program.”
The band’s success comes at a time when musicians and educators in urban centers across the country have increasingly turned to intensive music education as a vehicle for empowering students and building community. What makes the SciTech band unique is the sheer size of the endeavor, which has attracted almost 40 percent of the school’s student body, and the vitality of its playing, which has a way of popping off the stage.
Back in the hall, Bernice finished his pep talk, climbed up to the top of a stepladder in the center of the stage, blew four crisp beats from a whistle hanging around his neck, and then cued a tidal wave of sound.
They were rehearsing a selection they call “Canon Remix” — Bernice’s arrangement of a chestnut by Pachelbel — and the music, full of energy and youthful charm, flooded the hall. Bernice, his stepladder angled toward the balconies, steered the enormous band as if guiding an ocean liner. After the final cutoff, he deemed his players ready for “awesomeness.”
The end of school on Tuesday marks a band milestone, too: 10 years under Bernice’s direction. When he arrived — in the middle of the 2006-07 school year, because his predecessor had quit — the band had 20 students. Bernice discovered that those students had spent much of the year watching ESPN, and had never had a chance to perform a single concert. He had a different plan in mind. At his first band meeting, he wrote on the board a single word: ownership.
“This story is not about me,” Bernice explained recently, sitting in his small SciTech office. “I always have a tough time with those movies about white teachers who are the saviors of all these students who aren’t white. That’s not what this is here. We do have a different cultural background in many cases, but this is still us getting to know the students, finding out what their interests are, and asking them: How can we make this relevant to your situation, your life, and create a community — almost like a microculture within our city — to be that change.”
As Bernice and associate band director Shelby Carne sketched out the band’s activities, their vision of community came into sharper focus. The band runs after-school music and academic tutoring programs five days a week, keeping students in the building (and safely occupied) until around 6 each night.
Now some 500 SciTech students play in the band — dwarfing participation at similar schools. All of them arrived unable to read a note of music.
Last year the band was the subject of an inspiring documentary. Bernice has created a system of volunteer student leadership within the band, and its mentoring practices are being replicated within the school as a whole.
“We’re a family first, then a band,” he said, when asked to explain the group’s exponential growth. “We’re about caring for each other in a more holistic sense. It’s not just ‘did you get your scales right?’ It’s ‘how are things going?’ ”
SciTech as a whole still faces a steep climb, and has had eight different principals in the last decade. But the band has become a symbolic point of pride in a city struggling to overcome what students feel is an unjustly negative reputation.
“People don’t understand how much this city brings to the table,” said Anthony Diaz, a percussionist and rising senior who will be the band’s president next year. “People have that stereotype: that Springfield’s bad for kids, that Springfield don’t have no talent. But there are big things happening here. We love music, but this band is really about how Springfield kids can show what they’ve got.”
When asked about the meaning of the band for him personally, Diaz, who is legally blind, did not mince words. “This band helped me so much, in my personal life, in my school life, in everything. The band helps me keep going in school.”
Trumpeter Jerannchris Rivera-Heredia echoed his sentiment. “In middle school I used to get bullied and I was very antisocial,” he said. “Here, it feels like family.”
Looking ahead, Bernice said the goal is to extend and deepen what is already in place.
“A lot of people think schools like ours need radical change,” he said. “I think we need radical consistency. We’re doing what we’ve been doing for a decade now, and not going anywhere. Students know this is a home.”
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.