- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

Seventeen-year-old Jonathan Walker of Southeast dreams of being a band director in the District’s school system one day. Currently a freshman studying music education at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania in Cheyney, Pa., he wants to return to the District and build up the music program.

During his high school years, the Howard D. Woodson Senior High School band was his family, with band directors Allen Gardner and Sanders Milligan like second fathers, he says.

“It gave me something to do instead of being on the streets,” the trombone player says. “It got me off the streets. You had to have a 2.5 GPA to participate in band. That motivated me to strive for 2.5 or higher.”

Jonathan is featured in “Banding Together: School Bands as Instruments of Opportunity,” an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast. The exhibit is open until May 14.

“Band helped him focus and go to school,” says Jonathan’s mother, Delores Walker of Southeast. “The band members still stick together. The kids are strong, and they kept their heads on straight.”

The exhibit provides an overview of the history and benefits of the instrumental music program in the District of Columbia school system. It also outlines the decline of the band program, says Gail Lowe, curator and senior historian at the museum. She holds a doctorate in American studies.

Since 1845, instrumental and vocal music instruction has been part of the District of Columbia education system, she says. In the early 1900s, cadets began marching to military music, giving birth to marching bands.

“The music was added to support the drills,” Ms. Lowe says. “The cadets in the programs became musicians. Then later, more musicians were added.”

When the cadet program waned in the Vietnam era, the bands continued, adding girls, and the marching shows supported athletic events, she says. The bands depended on parents and the community for money for outfits and musical instruction, she says.

“The bands were an asset to community life,” Ms. Lowe says. “The entire city would turn out to support the program.”

Unfortunately, the District of Columbia school system has removed music and the arts from the basic curriculum, Ms. Lowe says.

“The music program in the public schools was somewhat decentralized,” Ms. Lowe says. “Money is given to the principals, but they are not spending it for music teachers and band programs.”

During the 2004-05 school year, almost 40 percent of primary school students and more than 20 percent of secondary school students in the District lacked a music teacher, says Dorothy Marschak, founder and president of Community Help in Music Education, a nonprofit organization supporting music education.

More than 90 percent of the elementary school students do not have instrumental music instruction, she says.

Banneker High School in Northwest, Cardozo High School in Northwest, School Without Walls in Northwest and Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast are among the District schools without bands, she says.

“Schools with bands are suffering because they don’t have new uniforms or sufficient instruments,” Ms. Marschak says. “Or students come into high school and don’t know how to play an instrument, since there is no instrumental music in many of the schools that feed into the high schools.”

Ironically, “March King” John Philip Sousa was from Anacostia. Despite Sousa’s heritage, students are missing a lot of the training and discipline that music carries into other subjects. Musicianship leads to good citizenship, Ms. Lowe says.

“If you learn to read music, you have to learn to read,” Ms. Lowe says. “You have to understand math. You have to focus when practicing. When you gain music instruction, it multiplies what you learn everywhere else.”

The job of a band director is to teach more than music, says Charles Hankerson, band director at Howard D. Woodson Senior High School from 1972 to 1994. His wife, Gwendolyn Hankerson, is a former auxiliary band sponsor for the school and treasurer of the band booster club.

Mr. Hankerson is featured in the Smithsonian exhibit and lives in Fort Washington.

“I taught the students to be on time, to get their lessons finished,” Mr. Hankerson says. “I just didn’t teach music. I taught the whole child.”

Band members attended 7:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. rehearsals almost every day. He used a point system to keep track of their strengths and weaknesses, and at the end of the year, he gave awards to the band members with the most points.

Eliminating music from the curriculum deprives students of a rich musical heritage, Mr. Hankerson says. In 1991, the Howard D. Woodson High School marching band played for Queen Elizabeth II under his direction.

“As far as music in America, especially jazz music, it started with slavery,” Mr. Hankerson says. “All the songs the slaves sang weren’t just songs. They were giving messages and communicating with each other.”

Much of jazz music started in New Orleans during funerals. Musicians would play sorrowful selections as the casket was brought to the church and graveyard. After the body was buried, the musicians would continue with joyful songs.

“That is how American jazz was born,” Mr. Hankerson says. “It went from New Orleans to Memphis, and Memphis to Chicago. As a boy, I played music for many funerals. At the same time, we played band marches and simple songs. Band music progressed over the years to where it is now.”

Sadly, receiving new instruments in most District schools is a rarity, says Richard Gill, band director at Jefferson Junior High School in Southwest. He is president of the District of Columbia Music Educators Association, a division of the Music Educators National Conference based in Reston.

Last year, he was forced to use some 20-year-old instruments, he says. He also is frustrated when administrators consider making instrumental music a half-year course.

“If the kids are gone after January, how will you do a spring concert? Who will play for graduation?” Mr. Gill says. “Coming to me for a semester and going to another class doesn’t work. They want to ask the teachers to make programs, but they won’t give the teachers what they need for a class.”

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