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Marching into the future
Porterville grows its own musicians
Well disciplined and well prepared are two descriptions used by Jim Kusserow — Tulare County’s teacher of the year, Porterville High School Panther Band director, leader of the Fabulous Studio Band, and president of the Central California Music Educators Central Section — as he sat in the audience listening to elementary and middle school students play at the CMEA Music Festival Thursday in the Frank “Buck” Shaffer Theatre inside the Porterville Memorial Auditorium.
“Wherever they end up, these kids are doing a fabulous job. They’re wonderful,” Kusserow said. “They are well prepared and well disciplined.”
In a few years, the young musicians will be in high school and possibly playing in one of the local high school bands known for the high quality of music and musicians it produces.
“The progress they have made from the first note to now is amazing. For many of them, it hasn’t been that long. They are taking giant steps,” Kusserow said.
Snider Hendrickson, band director for Rockford Elementary and Sunnyside Elementary, agreed.
On Friday, he watched his former band students play in the Granite Hills, Monache and Porterville high school bands.
“That’s when you can tell you really made a difference in their lives,” Hendrickson said. “To see them grown up and playing in high school means everything to me. They work so hard to prepare.”
But starting young is essential, Hendrickson said. He likes to introduce them to instruments in third grade so that by fourth grade, they know what they want to play, he said.
“It takes years to get to this level,” Hendrickson said. “Every year they progress a little more until they can play this kind of music. We build on what we teach them. It’s important to start young. This takes training.”
Where It Begins
Porterville Unified School District’s process of taking a child and making him into a great musician begins in fourth grade.
“I bring in a trombone and trumpet and play ‘Star Wars’ to inspire them. So many kids want to join band just from hearing it,” said Jack Amaral, Pioneer Middle School band director, who also teaches band at several elementary schools.
Ideally, Amaral said he would like to see a music-appreciation class in third grade; and a fourth, fifth and sixth grade band class. Amaral said he often talks about the wonderful opportunities high school band offers — the Selma Band Review, Rose Bowl Parade, professional football half time shows and summer band tours. He also encourages them to attend the annual Buck Shaffer Band-A-Rama each Veterans Day and high school concerts — providing free tickets to the concerts to expose and encourage them as much as possible.
In the meantime, he does what he can with the time allotted — 30 minutes to an hour twice a week.
“Here at Olive, I teach the brass and percussion students in one room and Jill Colburn teaches woodwinds — flute, clarinet and saxophone — next door,” Amaral said.
Amaral is not the only band director in the Porterville Unified School District. PUSD music instructors — Jack Amaral, Brian Janeway, Jill Colburn, Kami Whitten, Macheala Thron, Fred Knutson, Kathleen Smith and Norm Campbell — are responsible for the musical education of the elementary students.
At all but one elementary site, Amaral takes advantage of SmartMusic — a software program that allows interactive practice. The tool, used by music educators, enhances the music program — providing band instructors a way to see a dramatic improvement in students’ skills.
By attaching a small clip-on microphone to the instrument, Amaral has them play along with music on a screen. SmartMusic includes a background accompaniment of a full ensemble.
The program also offers immediate feedback on the performance — pointing out correct pitches and rhythms in green and incorrect ones in red.
“It will show if a note is played a little late or early or if a note is missed,” he said. “It also shows when the note is too high or too low. The program also records the playing so that it can be played back and heard.”
With the findings, Amaral reviews with the entire class, asking them what the student could have done different or what was needed to fix the problem.
In addition, the program pulls up individual notes, and can break down the lesson one measure at a time.
“The kids love it. It’s like Rock Band or Guitar Hero and it’s only $36 for one full year — that’s only $3 a month or about 10 cents a day. The teaching is awesome. I always recommend they also get the microphone and a headset and use it to practice in a quiet room.”
There’s instructional books, songs to play and an online music-sheet search for anything the students want to play.
Amaral also used the program to test the students on festival music — something they must accomplish with an 85 percent passing mark.
Beyond High School
Graduation is often not the end, Kusserow said. Influenced by the likes of the late Frank “Buck” Shaffer and former Monache High School band director Dale Anderson, many of the students have majored in music and have returned to the area as band directors.
Kusserow is a Porterville High graduate. Band directors Justin Adams, Ed McCue, Donna Steigleder and George Baker are all Monache High graduates. Many others, such as 1982 PHS graduate Greg Taylor, are music educators in other areas.
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.