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The musical stars of southeast Iowa

Union photo by Andy Hallman

Fairfield High School band director gives advice to Dallas Carlson, at the piano, and J.J. Funkhouser during their music theory class. The class teaches students how to arrange or even compose music on their own.
Union photo by Andy Hallman Fairfield High School band director gives advice to Dallas Carlson, at the piano, and J.J. Funkhouser during their music theory class. The class teaches students how to arrange or even compose music on their own.
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Music departments seek to attract as many students as they can, and keep as many as they can throughout the students’ career.

The music departments in southeast Iowa have done a good job of both. Fairfield band instructor Jim Edgeton remarked that the percent of the high school student body out for band has been stable during his 29 years at the school, staying right around 25 percent. This year, that means 123 kids out for band at a high school of about 500 students. The total number of students in band has declined over the years, but that’s mostly because the district has lost students, about 200 in the past decade or so.

Edgeton said he’s very pleased with the participation numbers in Fairfield. He remarked that the national average for high school students in band is 10 percent. Specializing in one extracurricular is stressed at bigger schools, and there are more choices available. Edgeton remarked that a student out for volleyball at such a school might find it difficult to be in marching band if the band goes to contest every weekend when the volleyball team has a tournament. At smaller schools, the music and athletic programs work together to avoid scheduling events at the same time, to allow students to participate in multiple activities.

“We are very open to the idea that this music program is for everyone,” Edgeton said. “We don’t weed out kids.”

Edgeton said choirs tend to have higher participation rates since there is no upfront cost of buying an instrument. Furthermore, Edgeton said that it’s more common to see a student go out for choir in their later years compared to band, because being in the band requires a large amount of accumulated mechanical knowledge in how to operate an instrument.

“If a student drops out in fifth grade, and mom and dad turn the horn in, it’s very unlikely that they’re going to come back,” Edgeton said.

The school’s band boosters has a program to help beginning band students by collecting used instruments from people in the area, and the donors receive a tax write-off. The students get to use the instrument for a year, and once they know that band is for them, they will have to buy an instrument.

Attrition

About 85-90 percent of students in the Fairfield Community School District go out for band the first year it’s offered, in fifth grade. By sixth grade, that number drops to 65-75 percent of the student body.

“There are lots of reasons for attrition. Some students try it and decide it’s not for them,” Edgeton said. “Our middle school is very good at encouraging students to try things such as through its LIFT program [30 minutes at the end of the day dedicated to subjects such as sewing, computer coding, African drumming, photography, and many others].”

Some students try to participate in several activities at once, and quit them because they get burned out. Other times, they quit because they don’t find their activities challenging. Edgeton said that finding the sweet spot between being too demanding and not demanding enough is key to keeping students engaged.

“Unlike English 9, which everybody has to take, nobody has to take band,” Edgeton said. “We’re always walking that fine line between being something that’s fun to participate in and having educational value along the way.”

Continuity

One factor that can affect whether a student stays out for music is the director. Students are more likely to stay out for music if they develop a relationship with their teacher. The best way to build a successful program is to have a director stick around for many years.

Being a first-year instructor is challenging, especially one who takes over from a well respected predecessor. Jonathan Runaas, the Washington High School choir director, knows all about that, because years ago when he worked at another district, he faced exactly that dilemma.

“I took over for a long-standing choir director, and it was rough,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good you are, you’re different from the tradition. It’s difficult to meet those expectations.”

Runaas is in his 11th year of teaching, and fourth at the high school. He previously taught choir for five years at Washington Middle School. He said that his transition to the high school went smoothly because he was a familiar face to the students.

Ability levels

Washington High School band director Don Hughes has taught for 20 years, including 12 years at the elementary level, and now he teaches both high school students and fifth-graders. He said Washington has about the same participation rate this year as always, although it did graduate a large class – 20 students – in 2019, while receiving 14 freshmen at the beginning of the 2019-20 school year.

Hughes said the way he gets kids to stick with the program is by making them feel like they’re accomplishing something.

“I try to throw a variety of literature at them, especially at the high school level,” Hughes said. “We have kids both behind and ahead of the curve in ability level. I need to find pieces for the kids who are not quite as far along that give them a sense of accomplishment, while still challenging kids who have put in the work.”

Band students at Washington acquire a “big sense of ownership” in the program, Hughes said. At the beginning of each year, Hughes asks the students to write down their expectations for the year, and lets them know they can make changes to the band if they want.

“I let them know that this is their band,” he said. “I’ll help them play well, but ultimately, the band is what they want it to be.”

Select groups

One of the ways band and choir directors keep their students motivated is by offering spots in select groups that perform more difficult pieces of music. At times, this means playing at public venues outside the school, like when the Washington High School jazz band plays gigs at JP’s 207 in Washington.

“We play there every year, and we pack the place,” Hughes said. “We do 1-1.5 hours of music. It’s a riot.”

Hughes teaches a jazz improvisational class to between five to 10 students each year. This year, about six students in the jazz band have taken that class, and Hughes is trying to find them venues where they can perform live jazz improvisations for the public.

Runaas said he tries to give his choir students as many leadership opportunities as possible. In fact, he lets the students run the chamber choir, while he acts more like a clinician, stepping in only when they need it.

“This is a nice way for me to keep my more musically advanced students interested and engaged, and provide them opportunities that are fairly uncommon,” Runaas said. “I ask the students who have the ability to arrange the music or make creative decisions on their own. We work a lot on music literacy, the ability to read music and we touch on writing music. It challenges them to become more mature musicians.”

Last year, two choir students arranged folk songs and composed their own original pieces. The chamber choir performed three of them. Runaas hopes the chamber choir can do that again this year with a student who has arranged a pop song. The school just needs to get the rights to the song first.

Students sound off

What reasons do students themselves give for joining school music programs? Having older siblings pave the way is one reason commonly given. Fairfield High school senior J.J. Funkhouser is in one of the choir’s select programs called Vox Choir.

“Both of my sisters were in choir, and I do everything they did,” Funkhouser said, referring to his older sisters, Rachel and Joanna.

Funkhouser said that FHS choir director Zach Reiter already had a nickname picked out for him before he even joined the high school choir.

FHS sophomore Sophia Fritz has a similar story to Funkhouser’s in why she became involved in music. She’s in band and choir, following in the path blazed by her brother Michael and sister Julia.

“When my brother was in fifth grade, my parents bought him a brand new saxophone right away,” she said. “My sister really loved choir and band, playing the flute. She went to All-State for Vox Choir. I’ve always looked up to my siblings, so I followed in their footsteps.”

When Sophia herself was old enough to join the band, she wanted to play a less common instrument such as the oboe or French horn. She settled on the French horn. At first, she was one of three French horns in the band, but by eighth grade she was the only one left. After joining the high school band, Fritz was glad to once again share a music stand with other French horn players.

FHS sophomore Carter Thompson started singing in his school’s choir in kindergarten, and started band in fifth grade. At his elementary school in Pleasant Valley, he tried out the trumpet and trombone before realizing he wanted to play in the rhythm section. Oddly enough, he was the only percussionist in his elementary school’s band, which forced him to become a jack of all trades. For one concert in sixth grade, he played 11 instruments.

“After we moved to Fairfield, I only played one instrument,” he said with a smile. “It was kind of a relief.”

Thompson’s favorite part of the band is playing the quint (five drums) in the marching band, and he particularly likes playing in the drumline, which performs just before the football games and in parades.

FHS senior Dallas Carlson said he got into band because he enjoyed watching the marching band perform when he was young. When he got to fifth grade, he wanted to play the trombone. Band instructor Aaron Adam introduced him to the baritone, which he said was a “trombone with valves.” Carlson liked it and has played it ever since.

Carlson said one of the things he likes about being in Vox Choir is the opportunity to perform for the public. Nursing homes, the hospital and other venues request a visit from the Vox Choir months in advance, sometimes booking them in May for a performance in December. Fritz said she and the other members of Vox and Jazz X sing Christmas carols around town every day of the week in the weeks leading up to Christmas break.

Fritz felt honored when she was chosen to sing in Jazz X because she was the only sophomore selected, in a group normally reserved for upper classmen. Fritz said she’s always bugging her friends to join the school’s music programs. Apart from the band and choir, students can express their musical abilities through the school musical or in the speech team’s musical theater.

“Band and choir are not only for playing and singing. All four grades are mixed together, and you get to meet so many people,” Fritz said.