Students at Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary School in Sitka sound their first note as a concert band. There are 81 students in the program this year, preparing for their concert in December. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

With the school year in full swing, so is the music education program in the Sitka School District. And there comes a moment of reckoning in the 5th grade where students pick up an instrument – sometimes for the first time – and learn how to play.

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Susan Brandt-Ferguson raises her arms expectantly. Eighty-one pairs of eyes are locked with hers.

“Eyes here,” she tells her students. “Check your posture. Move forward on your chair. Are your feet flat on the floor? Is your back tall? 1, 2, 3, deep breath here we go.”

Eighty-one students sound the same note in near unison, with occasional squeaks and squawks. This is the first time all band students are rehearsing in one room. After putting down their instruments, whether woodwinds, brass, or mallets for percussion, they look at each other kind of stunned.

In her 24 years of being a musical educator, Susan Brandt-Ferguson has spent 22 of them in the Sitka School District. “A lot of what fifth grade students have to learn how to do is start together and stop together,” she says. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“It’s so different right?,” Brandt-Ferguson tells them, amid nervous giggling. “But to be honest in the time we’ve had, you’ve made huge, amazing, and great progress.”

Brandt-Ferguson has been teaching concert band for 22 years in Sitka. She’s master at corralling elementary school energy into music and she knows this moment well: that wall of sound when everyone plays together for the first time.

Bridget Ford with her clarinet. Since picking it up, she’s learned several relatives and neighbors also know how to play – including her grandfather. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

“Some of you are a little quieter instruments than others,” she tells the band. “So it’s going to be awhile before they learn to control their sound, but it will happen. And together we’re going to make great sounds together.”

One of those quieter instruments is Bridget Ford’s clarinet.  After sounding a C note, she talks about choosing this instrument after careful scrutiny. “It’s not high pitched like the flute. It’s not LAAAA. But it’s not deep like the trombone. It’s just natural and it feels right for me to be playing it,” Ford says.

One of the hallmarks of the music education program in Sitka is that every student who wants to play an instrument can. While half the students  are using a new or loaned instruments acquired by their families, the other half is borrowing instruments from the district’s inventory.

There are four music educators in the Sitka School District, where instruction begins in kindergarten with Kathi Jones. Using the Kodály method, students learn to distinguish between loud and soft, fast and slow. By the time they reach Brandt-Ferguson in the 4th grade, they start to answer the question of “Which instrument is right for me?” She gives students a chance to try out every instrument before stating their preferences for 5th grade band.

Cooper Lewin with his trumpet. He aspires to play the trumpet solo in the Bruno Mars song “Uptown Funk.” (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Some, like Cooper Lewin, got a jumpstart at home. His brother was playing the trumpet. “He let me try it. And I just absolutely fell in love with it,” Lewin remembers. ” I’m like, ‘This is so fun,’ and I just couldn’t’ wait until it started.”

After a few weeks of playing, Lewin has a good grasp now of how to hold his fingers on the valves and how to breathe. He plays the first few lines of the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and says, “I can’t finish the end where it goes, ‘its fleece was white as snow.’ It’s like a High C. It’s weird.”

But he intends to figure it out, which is exactly the attitude Brandt-Ferguson cultivates with her students. Instead of telling students to “practice” their instrument, she tells them to “play” their instrument.

“They really have to play out to develop a good sound from the beginning. You have to kind of let it all hang out at first and then refine it over time,” Brandt-Ferguson says. The band also needs to learn rehearsal etiquette and how to listen to each other.

After two weeks, I come back to 5th grade band and there’s a noticeable difference in their ability to rest – or pause – between notes. Eighty one fifth graders are starting and stopping together.

“That was amazing,” Brandt-Ferguson tells them. “We had silence. It’s funny because a long time ago, you already knew how to not play your instrument. Right?” The group laughs. She adds, “Like a month ago, you knew how to not play your instrument. And then you were not playing your instrument. But now you’re figuring it out! I love it!”

The brass section of fifth grade band. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Brandt-Ferguson smiles hugely at her students. They have a long way to go, but with continued practice comes controlled playing and perhaps a love of music. She played piano as a kid, but turned to band when she picked up the clarinet in the 5th grade.

“It was in middle school that my heart started being in it,” Brandt-Ferguson recalls. “I had a middle school music teacher [Ginny Packer] that is the reason I’m a music teacher. And…she’s near and dear to my heart and is part of everything that I do, every time that I teach. I guess I hope that all of my students have experiences where they feel so much a part of a group and that they matter so much.

Each one of those voices will matter when the Keet Goshi Heen 5th graders take the stage for their first band performance on December 13th.