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Sound of silence: Portland public schools face shortage of musical instruments

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Sound of silence: Portland public schools face shortage of musical instruments

PORTLAND — For the first time in 20 years, the music department at Portland Public Schools is sounding a call.

The schools need musical instruments.

This year, about 50 students were unable to take music lessons for lack of instruments. Adding to the pressure, the Portland Music Boosters – a volunteer organization that has donated more than $30,000 to the schools – is disbanding in December after four years of service.

So, from 9 a.m.-noon on Saturday, Oct. 26, four music teachers will be at Lincoln Middle School to accept donations of new and used instruments.

Audrey Cabral, the district's music coordinator, said the schools' greatest needs are alto saxophones and small violins, but the teachers will accept any traditional band or orchestra instruments, plus guitars and ukuleles.

No bagpipes, banjos or kazoos, she said.

The teachers will also accept any school-owned instruments that should have been returned years ago – no questions asked.

The district held a similar event about two decades ago, Cabral said, but it was poorly attended and the donated instruments weren't very practical. In total, Cabral recalls receiving six instruments, including a mandolin and accordion.

The need for instruments has been there all along, but this year Cabral and three other teachers decided to do something about it.

Ashley Terison, who teaches stringed instruments to fourth- and fifth-graders at all of Portland's elementary schools, including Peaks Island, said she was unable to provide violins to about 30 students who wanted to attend her classes.

She was also short on basses, so she cobbled one together by combining a large cello with bass strings, she said.

Music classes are popular throughout the district, especially when you include choral music. All students between kindergarten and sixth grade take music class. Many more are involved in band, chorus and orchestra.

"I would say at least 50 percent of the student population participates in some form of music education," Cabral said.

For the most part, students either purchase or rent musical instruments for the classes. But students who can't afford them rely on the school's aging inventory of about 160, which includes many unused instruments, such as marching mellophones, baritone horns, French horns and tubas – some of which date back to the 1950s or '60s, Cabral said.

The school district has no money in the budget for new instruments, but does allocate money to fix old ones, she added.

New instruments can be pricey. Low-end violins cost about $280. New flutes go for $300. Alto saxophones, one of the most popular instruments in the district, are about $700. The district hasn't purchased new instruments since the early 1990s, Cabral said.

That doesn't mean the district hasn't received anything. During the past four years, the Portland Music Boosters has donated more than $30,000 to the music program, boosters President Carolyn Bird said. Just recently, the boosters bought 23 new violins – a bulk deal for $1,800.

The group was formed when the district considered cutting its elementary strings and band programs. In its first year, the boosters raised about $20,000 through volunteer work at South Portland Bingo Hall.

But the group will dissolve by the end of the year due to declining participation, Bird said. In its most recent year, the boosters raised only $2,000.

Bird, who played French horn and trumpet at her school in Rochester, N.Y., has children in Portland schools. She's cautiously optimistic that another group may come along to fill the void.

"My hope is there will be interest and energy to keep the music department strong," Bird said.

Cabral said it's an unfortunate situation.

"It is just too bad that with all the students involved in music education in Portland, that there weren't enough parents to keep the group together," she said. "The money has been great to help with retaining and purchasing new instruments, for the classroom music teachers as well."

About 53 percent of the student population would qualify to borrow the schools' instruments if they were interested. (The qualifications are based on the same criteria as the free-or-reduced lunches program.) Cabral estimates that about three-quarters of interested students receive instruments. The rest go without.

"We literally put names in a hat," she said. "We turn down kids."

The lack of instruments for Portland's most vulnerable population is mirrored nationwide, according to a 2011 report by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

The report said that decades of research show "strong and consistent links between high-quality arts education and a wide range of impressive educational outcomes."

"At  the  same  time,  due  to  budget  constraints  and  emphasis  on  the  subjects  of  high stakes testing, arts instruction in schools is on a downward trend," the report said. "Just when they need it most, the classroom tasks and tools that could best reach and inspire these students – art, music, movement and performing – are less available to them.

"Sadly, this is especially true for  students  from  lower-income  schools,  where  analyses  show  that  access  to  the  arts  in schools is disproportionately absent."

The district's academic office wasn't able to provide funding data for the total music program, but said the district-wide budget for music supplies – including music stands, reeds and paper – has fluctuated over the past three years: nearly $6,200 for this fiscal year, more than $5,400 in fiscal 2013, and almost $7,900 in fiscal 2012. The district has also provided about $18,000 each year to transport music students and provide events.

Cabral said the numbers for the total budget have declined over the years.

"The funding has gone down a lot," she said. "We're at the bare-bones minimum."

Bird, who is also president of Casco Bay Engineering, said music deserves greater funding because of the obvious connection between music and academic performance.

"It's the whole process of working very hard and getting positive results," she said. "You have an obstacle in front of you and you keep practicing and practicing and eventually you overcome it. You can apply that to school.

"So many people would benefit from playing an instrument. I think it would be wonderful if everyone were able to play."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.