- Associated Press - Saturday, January 29, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.VA. (AP) - In the nine years Leigh Ann Smith has taught music in West Virginia’s Mingo County, she’s had to do it with a misfit collection of used instruments: a few trumpets, some saxophones and a snare drum.

It was never enough to start a full-fledged band at Mingo County’s Kermit Area School. That changed when the school got $30,000 in instruments and equipment from the VH1 Save the Music Foundation.

Smith said she knew from her students’ reactions at an assembly to announce the donation that lives were about to change.

“When the kids came to class, they were just bouncing off the walls,” she said. “This was a great boost for our music program. Most of these kids couldn’t afford instruments on their own.”

Kermit is one of eight schools in West Virginia to get a boost from the foundation, which for the first time since its inception in 1997 is aiming to get new instruments at a school in every county in one state.

“We’re looking to at first take the program statewide so that we have a footprint in all 55 counties,” said Rob Davidson, the foundation’s program director. “And then long-term the goal is to fully restore music education K through 8, which is where our mission is, throughout the state. That will take many, many years. But that’s our end goal.”

That’s a lot of instruments. While the foundation fully funded the instruments for the first eight schools, officials hope state and local agencies will match future donations.

Save The Music, dedicated to restoring instrumental music programs in public elementary and middle schools, has donated $47 million in new musical equipment and helped music programs in 1,700 schools in 100 cities nationwide. The foundation requires schools to have an instrumental music teacher and provide music instruction.

Randall Reid-Smith, commissioner of the state Division of Culture and History, said foundation officials have committed about $1.7 million to equipping one school in every county with instruments over the next six years.

At Kermit, all 28 of Smith’s sixth-graders now have something to play. VH1’s donation included 11 clarinets, eight flutes, six trumpets, four trombones, three alto saxophones, and a ready-made percussion section with snare and bass drums, cymbals and marching bells.

Music is more fun now for sixth-grader Brittany Block, who said she often takes her trumpet home to practice.

“When I get bored, I pick it up and start playing it, and when I get my chores done,” she said.

Classmate Joseph Sturgell had never played an alto sax before he was handed one in Smith’s class. Now he’s hooked.

“I just looked at it and thought it was cool,” he said.

That’s music to their teacher’s ears.

When the instruments arrived, “I heard a lot of ‘I can’t do this,’” Smith said. “Some of them have really surprised me. They’re finding out they have the confidence to do this.”

They even persuaded her to let them perform “Jingle Bells” at a Christmas concert, even though she didn’t think they were ready.

Kermit students now practice in class and once a week after school, and they’re looking forward to performing at the school’s spring concert. Many say they want to continue playing into high school and perhaps college. However, Davidson said the goal isn’t creating future musicians _ but making kids passionate about learning.

“If nothing else, music engages kids in school,” Davidson said. “It gives them a reason to want to be in school. It gets them to come to school, which is the first step in getting them a great education is getting them in the door.”

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