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Mt. Edgecumbe strikes up the band

SITKA, ALASKA
Do, re, mi: The first three notes in the Solfege scale. Solfege might have become famous when Maria used it to teach the Von Trapp children how to sing in “The Sound of Music,” but in real life, it’s been used for centuries to teach singers how to find their pitch, whether they're on a hillside in Austria, or in a classroom in Sitka.

“Solfege is actually a way I learn,” says Auna Springer, a freshman from Bethel. “It’s kind of weird, I guess, but it helps me get the song down easier than singing it normally.”

Springer is writing the symbols on a whiteboard during choir class at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a state-run boarding school in Sitka.

“I was actually put in this class last semester,” she says. “I’ve never been in choir and I’ve always hated my voice, and so I decided to just stick with it because I didn’t want to go through the hassle of changing my class. And I stuck with it and I like it now.”

That’s probably music to the ears of Stephen Courtright, who this year joined the faculty as the first full time music teacher at Edgecumbe in 25 years.

“When I first arrived on campus, I heard from everybody how excited they were, how necessary it was, how much the music had been missed and how great it was to have music going again,” Courtright said. “That support hasn’t waned or flagged since. It’s just really positive to get that feedback and to know that that’s the environment that we’re in.”

Courtright has about 31 students, including five in his first class of the day: Rock band.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” he said. “Lots of, volume. Follow that up with the choir, then in the afternoon there’s an Introduction to Music class that has a range of skill levels. They’re doing a variety of things. Right now they’re learning how to play drum set. And then we finish off the day with a band class.”

Courtright has, at the moment, anyway, a small program. But the program has a big legacy.

“Historically, this program is huge,” he said. “Back when the BIA had the school, there were choirs that were considered some of the best in Alaska. The band topped 90 at one point from what I understand.”

He says he’s not sure it’ll ever get back to 90 students, but he’d like to see it grow to about 50 or 60 students in two years. So would Bernie Gurule, academic principal at Edgecumbe.

“I’ll probably cringe later at what I say now,” said Gurule, sitting inside his office, “but one of the tough things is that, when you have a program that’s so successful that you build your whole schedule around it, that’s a goal. What I mean by that is that if it’s so popular that so many kids want to take it that we have to build the rest of the schedule around it, that’s saying that it’s doing what we wanted it to do.”

And Gurule says it’s not just about building the program’s prominence. He says research has shown music students have an easier time with reading and math. And, he says, there’s a discipline that comes with studying music.

“And I think that’s probably the part I like the most,” Gurule said. “If you’re going to be good at anything you’re going to have to practice. And if you’re just depending on the class itself, just the class time – the seat time – to make you a good musician, it’s probably not going to work. So it’s going to require some outside discipline on your part. So that’s a very important element we’d like to give our students.”

Back in the classroom, junior Shawn Oles is packing up his guitar at the end of the rock band class.

“I’ve never taken a music class. I’ve learned just about everything on my own,” Oles said. “But I’ve been playing guitar since I was 6 years old, just not as serious as when I got here. It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun.”

Courtright says he’s working with students from a variety of experience and skill levels. Some have been in bands back in their hometowns. Others, like Oles, never had a formal music class until they arrived at Edgecumbe.

“Working on this staff is pretty awesome, and working with these kids is pretty awesome,” Courtright said. “I’ve never worked with a population of students who had so much raw talent and enthusiasm for being involved in music. And it’s just a matter of giving them the tools necessary to put it all in action.”

The tools include instruments the school has invested in – trumpets and trombones and clarinets and guitars, to name a few – but also time, which in hiring Courtright is something else the school has invested in.

This choir might not be the biggest, this band might not be the loudest, but give them time, and watch what happens.
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