Bernadette Scruggs’ days are filled with music. From the halls of her Gwinnett County high school float the sounds of vocal and instrumental scales, violin practice sessions and orchestra rehearsals. “There’s always something happening here,” she says. “Music just runs through the halls.”
Scruggs is one of the people charged with making sure it does. A violinist by training—who’s also picked up several other instruments along her 26-year teaching career—she’s one of Peachtree Ridge High School’s two orchestra directors, working with high schoolers as they explore and refine their technique.
She insists that learning music is about more than making a joyful noise. “Ensemble playing really teaches kids teamwork,” she says. “They have to be responsible for their own playing, but they have to pay attention, to listen to what other musicians are doing. Music is very much about discipline.”
The discipline of music in Georgia’s schools gets a big boost from the Georgia Music Educators Association. The Atlanta-based organization serves as both resource center and mentoring station for teachers and students alike.
“We provide evaluative sessions for students and teachers,” says Cecil Wilder, GMEA’s executive director. These are held in the form of adjudicated workshops where students can play and receive feedback on style, technique and process. Their performances are graded on a five-point scale which is designed to help them see how their musicianship is growing.
“These events are held throughout the year in the 13 geographic districts we serve,” Wilder says. “And they offer true constructive criticism. We can tell a kid what he or she is doing well, what he can continue to do, and what she needs to fine tune.”
That information is important to students considering not only studying music later on in their college or adult careers, but also for students new to playing who might just want some pointers.
The judging workshops are offered for soloists, ensembles, bands, orchestras and choirs. Aside from helping students discover strengths and find room for improvement, the sessions also give music teachers insight on how they’re teaching and what students need to learn. Teachers also benefit from GMEA’s annual three-day, in-service session, where they can get resources for fundraisers, band and choir uniforms, hear about advocacy that GMEA is doing in its role as the liaison between schools and the legislature, and hear tips on how to create and tweak their curriculum to ensure students are learning all they can.
Enriching the whole person
Scruggs emphasizes that the learning process is essential to helping students grow—not just as musicians. Her program has 260 participants who come from an extremely diverse background. She’s worked hard with her fellow teachers to make it as student-centric as possible, letting kids take part in how classes should be directed, instead of simply using a top-down approach to teaching. Making students an integral part of the process helps them see that their contributions matter and that learning music is about more than just playing the right notes.
“Our program shows them how music can be a part of their lives,” she says. “Learning about music helps them learn about the world and become better-rounded. They might go on to professional careers. They might also decide to do something else, but keep on playing, performing at things like a friend’s wedding or in their church.”
She has two former students currently pursuing professional careers. Joseph Conyers began playing piano early on, sang in his church choir and started playing bass in the sixth grade. Today, he plays bass in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and leads an outreach program that brings music and music lessons to students in Savannah’s schools.
“He is certainly the most wonderful kid I have taught, and not because of his musical prowess, though that tickled me pink,” she says. “Joseph is just a terrific human being, and all around good person.”
Another of her students, Catherine P., currently is studying at the Manhattan School of Music, majoring in viola performance. Scruggs says Catherine found herself and her strengths in music class. “She just blossomed. She threw herself into practicing.”
Unifying the iPod generation
Scruggs believes music is a great equalizer. She sees a whole range of students in her classes: kids who make straight As, kids who would rather sing or play an instrument than study and everyone in between.
“The thing about music is that everyone can participate somehow,” she notes. “If you’re willing to put in the time, you can master this instrument or this harmony. And it doesn’t matter if you’re on the honor roll or if you’re struggling or if you are involved in other activities.”
Scruggs and Wilder agree that music also makes kids more independent.
“Anyone who’s ever been in a music program can take whatever life throws at them,” says Scruggs. “Because they’ve learned how to be part of a bigger operation, something beyond themselves.”
“Kids have a pre-disposition to appreciate the arts, I think,” says Wilder. “From a really early age, they explore their own world through making noise, drawing, asking questions. Music really does allow them to bolster that curiosity.”
Wilder says that’s very much how he was drawn into a music career, himself. His parents would play big band jazz music when he was growing up, and he says he simply gravitated to the sound. He began playing the trombone in his school band and got his first professional gigs in the 10th grade. From there he studied music at Auburn and taught in public schools for 30 years before taking over as GMEA’s executive director. Along the way, he passed on his love of music to several students, one of whom, Mark Hughes, is now the principle trumpet for the Houston Symphony.
For every “success story” like those students who become professional players, though, Scruggs says there are hundreds more who have achieved a very different sort of musical success.
“They’ve learned to be part of a team, and they’ve learned about the history of music,” she says. “Think of it: every kid today is plugged into an iPod. They’re surrounded by music, and we help them learn about it. How great is that?”