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Beating the Drum for Music

by Steve Israel

From the Times Herald-Record, May 14, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Orange County Publications. All rights reserved.

Ringo Starr calls him "the greatest drummer alive." Keith Richards and Eric Clapton riff on guitar behind him. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honors him for singing and drumming on classic songs from The Band like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

So what was legend Levon Helm of Woodstock doing rocking a ragged high school auditorium in Boiceville last weekend?

Playing a benefit for one of the region's many hurting music programs.

Onteora High School's music department has instruments that are so old, they must be patched. The Ulster County district doesn't have enough music teachers to teach all of the courses recommended by the Music Educators' National Conference. Its auditorium is missing about 100 seats because there isn't enough money for new ones. And if the district whose budget failed last year doesn't pass one this year, the department's cuts could slash deeper.

This is why Helm and his band helped raise more than $5,000 for the department May 6.

"I don't know why anyone would want to hurt the kids," Helm says in his raspy Arkansas-flavored twang. "You cut the music. You cut the marching band. You cut sports. Pretty soon, school ain't school anymore."

But as far as the state goes, music plays second fiddle to core course requirements like English and math - which is why music and arts programs are "always the first to go," says Andrea Brown, arts and education coordinator for Sullivan and Orange County BOCES.

And this is why, just days from the school budget votes that help determine everything from the number of music teachers to the number of instruments, many departments are on needles and pins. They know they're already singing the blues - like the cash-strapped voters.

In Chester, where the budget was defeated last year, anyone who wants to play the tuba has to blow on a 1936 horn because a new one costs as much as $6,000. And if they want to play it in the 70-member marching band, they won't be able to wear uniforms. The band doesn't have any.

"They always take care of the sports people," says band director Tom Venable, "but the band people? Don't they want us to look good for the school?"

In Washingtonville, which has an even older tuba than Chester's, the defeat of last year's budget meant the loss of nearly one and a half music teacher positions in the elementary and middle schools. That's 10 percent of the department, according to Jim Briggs, the head of the district's high school and middle school music departments.

"That affects everything for the next few years and every year beyond that," says Briggs.

Port Jervis, which also saw its budget defeated last year, had to cut summer lessons for 200 beginning kids.

"We're just treading water," says its coordinator for music, Mike Pacer.

Even Monroe-Woodbury, whose music program was named one of the top 100 in the country by the American Music Conference, is jittery about a second consecutive budget defeat - and the possibility of another austerity budget.

Programs that give some of Monroe-Woodbury's 5,000 music students their start could be slashed, says music coordinator Linda Dziuba, who adds that about 65 percent of the students in the southern Orange County district are in music ensembles. The vulnerable programs include third-grade chorus and fourth-grade band and orchestra, as well as transportation to the New York State School Music Association and the county and state festivals.

"It's pretty frightening," says Dziuba.

In fact, the only music departments that aren't worried about the impact of failed budgets are those that are confident of the strong support of parents and administrators. They include Goshen, Warwick, Monticello and Sullivan West.

Professionals like Dziuba know that music in school isn't just about learning scales, counting measures or studying jazz history. They know that kids who study music score up to 60 points higher on their SATs, that they are less likely to do drugs or alcohol, that music is the only subject that requires kids to use the right side of the brain (for counting measures or bowing strings) and left side (for emotion) at once. Plus, playing in a band, orchestra or chamber ensemble is a way for shy kids to socialize.

"I don't think people realize how important this is to us," says Monroe-Woodbury's 17-year-old violinist, Matt Milone.

Levon Helm does. That's one reason he invited some Onteora High School drummers to his home for free lessons last week.

"These are our schools and our kids," he says, "and we've got to protect them."

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