As the school year comes to a close in Sitka, student activities culminate in big events. There’s sports tournaments and final performances, award ceremonies and graduations. Monday night (05-07-18) was the final concert of the 5th grade band. Students played four full band pieces that took a year of musical study, which began in the fall with Part 1 of our series.

Downloadable audio.

Being a diligent band student pays off. That’s the message teacher Susan Brandt-Ferguson wants to send her 5th graders currently snacking with concentration on the floor. Most have ice cream mustaches. “We have crunch bars and rainbow Popsicles,” Brandt-Ferguson tells me.

This is the annual “No-Tardies Ice Cream Party.” About half the 5th grade band got a surprise invitation this morning as a reward for coming on time with their instruments throughout the year.

Brandt-Ferguson says her approach to classroom discipline is focused on positive reward rather than punishment. “If it’s about their effort rather than my effort to control them, then the balance is right,” she says with a laugh.

Susan Brandt-Ferguson with her fourth grade students. Towards the end of the school year, students get to try out all the instruments and list on paper their top choices for 5th grade band. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)(Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Balance is a key ingredient in the evolution a 5th grade band. You may remember KCAW’s story from the beginning of the year. Students in the fall were just learning how to produce a sound and hear themselves over 82 others. Eight months later, they’re still learning how to play their own part while also listening for each other.

(Sound of band playing together in April)

“Now they’re starting to learn enough control that they can maybe back off a little bit and listen for someone else,” Brandt-Ferguson said before their “Hello Summer” concert. “Like in “Pirates Parade,” there’s one part where everyone is playing except for the flutes. And then the flutes come in and if everyone else doesn’t back off a little bit, we will never hear the flutes.”

Students earn “band bucks” for practicing that can be cashed in at the music store in the back of the band room. Several parents volunteer throughout the year to support the band. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)


But if they do, there will be that balance. This band’s rendition of “Pirates Parade” debuted on Monday with a unique solo from Tanner Steinson, playing a screaming high note on his French Horn.

(Sound of band playing Pirates Parade)

Each section also performs a solo. During instructor Mike Kernin’s arrangement of Louie Louie, the 5th graders enthusiastically popped on a pair of sunglasses. “Dun, dun, dun, it’s a great pep band tune,” Brandt-Ferguson said.

Bridget Ford practices her clarinet while her mother Heather Ford looks on. She plans to continue in middle school. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The laid back look doesn’t fully convey just how much work Brandt-Ferguson and her students have put into this performance. Some of that practice happens at home. Heather Ford’s daughter Bridget practices the clarinet half an hour at at a time.

Heather: It’s usually 3 to 4 times a week that she’ll do that [practice].
KCAW: That’s really good for practicing.
Heather: Yeah. Sometimes I think she does it more because she likes to hear the dog howl. She says the dog is singing with her.

(Sound of Bridget playing clarinet)

Bridget has come a long way too. In the beginning, she says, I was squeaking every other note. “My dog would howl and howl and howl and I would keep playing and playing,” Ford said.

All that practicing eventually paid off. Brandt-Ferguson went so far as to prove that to her students. Mid-way through their concert, she plays them a recording of their very first song: Hot Cross Buns.

(Sound of band playing “Hot Cross Buns” in November)

The 5th graders are turning pink at the sound of themselves at the beginning of the year. A few are curled into their laps trying to stifle their laughter.

“On that day, those fifth graders – these fifth graders – were very proud of themselves,” Brandt-Ferguson tells the audience. “They should be because they were doing an awesome job for playing their instrument for four weeks. But boy, have we come a long way,” she adds.

Cooper Lewin practice his trumpet at home. He and his Coast Guard family are moving this summer to New Orleans, where he hopes his new school will have a music program like Sitka’s. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

After the concert, trumpet player Cooper Lewin said they sounded even better than they did in practice. “I think everybody was so nervous that they brought it all together,” he said.

Some of these students will carry on with their musical craft in middle school, under the direction of Sarah Frank. That’s when Brandt-Ferguson says she got hooked on her instrument, the saxophone. She wants her students to experience that love affair too, with an instrument that fits like a glove.

(Sound of Brandt-Ferguson playing the saxophone)

She recently played sax for a class of 4th graders, at the start of their band journey. Brandt-Ferguson goes above and beyond for these students too, letting them slowly try out every instrument in the band to see what they like best.

After a few deep breaths and false starts, a student manages to get the saxophone to play a single note. “There you go,” Brandt-Ferguson says, wiping off the mouthpiece so another student can try. “You got it figured out. Good for you.”

And so, another cycle of 5th grade band begins, not with trumpet fanfare but with a squeak.