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Concert promotes retention in school music programs

Several Westminster area elementary and middle schools, along with Westminster High School, are coming together in the fourth annual Side By Side Band and Orchestra Concert in an effort to improve instrumental music student retention in schools.

The program began in 2009, after instrumental music directors from various public schools in Westminster had a meeting to address how to keep students involved in music programs in school, according to Brian Thompson, instrumental music director at Westminster Elementary School.

"We found that we were starting to lose the majority of our kids when they were moving on to middle and high school," he said. "And we wanted to do something about it."

Thompson said he thinks children drift away from instrumental music in school for several reasons.

Students might be worried about the extra workload on top of increased amounts of work in middle school and high school, he said. Sometimes, he said, students might think it's not cool to be in the band.

While the music directors were planning ways to keep their students involved in music programs, they came up with the idea of a half-day program and concert where the elementary, middle and high school students could all mingle together and learn from each other.

Since then the program has grown into a day-long event culminating in a concert at night, Thompson said.

Fifth grade band and orchestra members from Westminster, Mechanicsville, Friendship Valley and Sandymount elementary schools, along with seventh and eighth grade band and orchestra members from West Middle School and orchestra and wind ensemble members from Westminster High School participate in the event.

On Feb. 28 the Side By Side program will start as band students from the elementary and middle schools arrive at the high school to prepare for the concert while meeting and playing with students from other schools.

Brian Drake, co-band director at Westminster High School, contributed what he calls an Instrument Petting Zoo to the event. He participated in an Instrument Petting Zoo at the Kennedy Center when he was in high school, so he said he thought it would be great to bring the concept to Westminster.

At the Instrument Petting Zoo fifth grade students will be able to observe and try out various instruments that are offered at the middle and high school level but not at the elementary level.

The day gives younger students a chance to try out new instruments, play with musicians from different schools and meet the band directors they would work with if they continue in the music program.

"The benefit of having elementary and middle school students coming up and working with us is that they see the options available to them," Drake said. "They're not going in blind. They get to meet the directors and see their potential progress."

Thompson said it is important to keep music students in the programs through elementary, middle and high school because music classes offer a unique classroom setting students might not get somewhere else.

"With music it's a very hands-on activity and along with the music students learn cooperation, teamwork and responsibility," he said. "There are so many different aspects they can carry on to other subjects."

Drake and Thompson said they hope the Side By Side program and concert inspires students and gives them confidence to continue in instrumental music programs, and so far it seems to be working.

"Our instrumental student numbers were matriculating a little bit lower, but since we've done the Side By Side concert, we've seen the numbers going back up, especially in the middle schools," Drake said.

The Side By Side Band and Orchestra Concert will take place Feb. 28 at 7:15 p.m. Anyone is welcome to attend the concert, Thompson said.

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