Music training, said Plato, should begin in the early years. One Maine company is doing just that as it helps youngsters throughout the state develop talents with instruments from piccolos and tubas to violas and bass fiddles.
Rockport-based Northern Kingdom Music serves nearly 100 school districts in the state, renting, leasing and selling students 2,000 to 3,000 instruments a year. Most are in the central, midcoast and northern regions, said Glen Sargent, Northern Kingdom’s school band division manager, but the firm also reaches “a couple of dozen schools” in the southern part of the state and three districts in New Hampshire. In addition to supplying the hardware and sheet music for bands, Northern Kingdom provides tutorial programs to help school music teachers implement programs.
School bands throughout the state participate in a range of activities. Parades, sporting events, holiday concerts and performances with college-level orchestras and jazz bands are just some of the public events at which they appear. Many youngsters go on to professional or semiprofessional careers in music.
The Sanford High School band, though not clients of Northern Kingdom, will represent Maine in the Inaugural Day parade on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., selected from nearly 1,400 school bands nationwide that applied. Music director Matt Daimon said 65 student musicians, eight honor guards and six color guards were traveling by bus and would tour the nation’s capital for three days before the Jan. 20 event.
Faith Varney, director of Maine Music Educators’ Association, says gaining a musical talent is an important milepost for many children who might not excel in other areas. A music teacher in Falmouth for 34 years, she cites studies that confirm music helps the brain develop and accelerates skills in academic subjects such as math.
Last May, Camden resident Elwood Dorian, former owner and general manager of Northern Kingdom, was honored by MMEA for working nearly 30 years to introduce kids to music. Dorian was Northern Kingdom’s school band division coordinator before Sargent, and he said that parents often cut back on their own purchases to buy or rent an instrument for a child.
Although Northern Kingdom has two other locations in Maine — Bangor Music Center on Harlow Street and Aroostook Music in Presque Isle — youth bands are not its only focus. Sales to the general public include all types of guitars and keyboards as well as drums, pianos and a range of woodwinds and strings, from violins to ukuleles. Repairs and maintenance are offered at the stores and on location.
A 25-year veteran of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra where he plays saxophone and clarinet, Sargent said the music industry in Maine is very competitive, with local and chain stores as well as Internet operations vying for sales. Another Bangor store, also called Northern Kingdom Music and also on Harlow Street, was formerly part of the Rockport company but now is an independent retailer of commercial instruments. What sets the Rockport firm apart, Sargent says, is specialized knowledge and personal service for musicians of all ages.
Steve Norris, band director for Bangor’s elementary schools, said the school system does not find instruments for students, and that the 180 youngsters from four Bangor school bands and orchestras have rent-to-buy contracts from a variety of vendors. Likewise, Bangor High School music director Scott Burditt says the 76 students in his bands also rent their own, but he says his program uses Northern Kingdom exclusively to purchase some larger instruments and for repairs and maintenance supplies.
At the Bangor Music Center, Joe Shaw does repairs and upkeep on around 500 instruments every summer, mostly from area schools. A craftsman for nearly 20 years, he acknowledges that his work declines in the winter, when most of it is for private musicians. Yet even during the academic year, he adds, band instruments need reeds, tuning and other maintenance, so Northern Kingdom does “on-the-spot repairs” at schools.
Sargent noted that some instruments at schools “really take a beating” and date back as far as 50 years. He said they really should be replaced, but there are budgetary constraints.
With the state Department of Education’s projected school funding for next year frozen at present levels, Sargent expects there may be pressure to save on music programs in some Maine districts. “Music is always one of the first to be looked at when there are cutbacks,” he said in an interview.
But he emphasized that parents and local school boards are strong supporters of music education, so he does not foresee a total elimination of programs.
While the public school part of the business generally begins in fourth or fifth grade and continues through high school, Northern Kingdom also assists music programs at Colby and Bowdoin colleges, and music departments at the University of Maine and the University of Southern Maine’s Gorham campus, in addition to UM’s summer music program. A number of his former students, Sargent reports, have gone on to teaching positions, and others have pursued careers in orchestras or as professional musicians.