May 24, 2018
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Budding musicians instrumental in new school program

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

HARMONY, Maine — “Chipmunks don’t play instruments,” Iris Fields good-naturedly admonished the young girl, whose cheeks were as inflated as the lips she had clamped over a trumpet mouthpiece.

Pursing her own lips, the Harmony Elementary School music teacher showed the pupil the proper way to blow the horn and then demonstrated how the fingers should be placed on the keys.

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Those instructions were repeated Tuesday as Fields worked her way around a semicircle of about 21 future musicians, all of whom were holding a new brass or woodwind instrument to their mouth.

Fields of Brunswick playfully covered her ears with her hands and said, “Now blow,” and the children did. There were squeals and squawks, but those sounds were harmonious to a school that’s been without instrumental music for more than 40 years.

Thanks to Fields, who came out of retirement to teach at her alma mater, a local organization and two foundations, this small pre-kindergarten through grade eight school of 104 pupils is once again making music.

Thirty-six new instruments were purchased through a $30,000 VH1 Save The Music Foundation grant, and a $5,000 Oak Grove-Coburn Education Foundation grant furnished all the music books and accessories, such as reeds. Fields wrote both grant applications. The latter grant was made possible though the local Harmony Patriarchs Club.

While the New York-based VH1 Save The Music Foundation has awarded grants elsewhere in the country — from New York to Hawaii — the Harmony grant is the first one to a Maine school, Chiho Okuizumi, the foundation’s program coordinator, said Tuesday during a visit to Harmony.

“We’ve given about 1,700 schools all over the country about $45 million in the packages, touching the lives of about 1.4 million students,” Okuizumi said. The foundation is funded by people who believe every child should have equal access to instrumental music education, she noted.

Harmony had all the elements in place for the “restore or jump-start” grant, Okuizumi said. The school had Fields, a certified instructor, on board, and it had the time to provide instrumental instruction for pupils in grades 6, 7 and 8.

Since the foundation promotes shopping locally, the instruments were purchased from Perkins Music House in Skowhegan, whose owner, Dale Perkins, happens to be a Harmony school alumnus. Drums and cymbals also were purchased, but the percussion program will begin next year.

“We really see it as a partnership, we see it as a long-term relationship and we want to see the program succeed,” Okuizumi said.

Argy Nestor, who oversees the art, music and dance teachers in the state for the Department of Education, said she was thrilled that the school got the funding.

Evidence clearly shows that if students have the opportunity to be involved in music, it improves their overall development, including in mathematics problem solving, creativity and thinking skills, Nestor said Tuesday while visiting the school. In addition, music helps boost self-esteem. She said the state will soon launch an initiative for arts education assessment that will provide a standards-based assessment test.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our students,” agreed Maggie Allen, the school’s principal. “It’s just one more way they can open up opportunities for themselves.”

That’s important because Harmony is one of the poorest communities in Maine, and most parents there cannot afford to purchase instruments for their children, she said.

“Any opportunity for our students to increase their aspirations is so important not only for the school but the community at large,” Allen added.

By a show of hands, many of the children rehearsing Tuesday agreed that music will make a difference in their lives.

Seventh-grade pupil Alicia Phillips said, “I think playing an instrument is really fun and important, and it kind of helps you express yourself.”

Ashton Ward, also of the seventh grade, said it was a “really great, great opportunity to learn.”

“It’s kind of cool because I’m always into sports and stuff; I never thought I’d play an instrument,” sixth-grade pupil Cidney Pratt said.

Pratt and the other pupils obviously respected their sometimes witty instructor.

“They are making semi-intelligent sounds on their instruments and are having a wonderful time making funny noises,” Fields said.

Looking at a young pupil holding a clarinet, Fields said, “It will be a beautiful tone when she gets her embouchure right.” The embouchure is the method of applying the lips and tongue to the mouthpiece of a wind instrument.

Fields isn’t worried, though, because she said her students are so eager to learn that she is certain they quickly will master the embouchure and other musical methods.

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