Elementary Music Program

Hughson’s youngest students excited about music programs
Posted on 10/12/2021
FES Music Students

Hughson Unified has a proud tradition of exceptional music programs at its high school and middle school. That even extended to fifth grade, where longtime teacher Ella Webb taught beginning band to Fox Road Elementary students. After Webb retired more than a decade ago, Katye (pronounced “Katie”) Maki took over, but the workload on Maki and budget cuts eventually forced the district to temporarily drop fifth-grade band.


Last year, another music teacher – Mark Twomey – was added at Ross Middle School. And though the high school and middle school music programs were impacted by the COVID safety precautions, things are looking up again this year. The fifth-grade band program, with Twomey at the helm, has been restored while Maki, who remains at the high school, has added four days of music for the first time ever for transitional kindergarteners through third-graders at nearby Hughson Elementary School.


District officials are especially excited about the introduction of a formal music program at HES, where many teachers for years have integrated singing into their lessons without any specific music structure.


“Music is really important in childhood development,” explained Assistant Superintendent Carrie Duckart. “It positively impacts their academic performance by stimulating a different part of their brain and supports creativity. It helps develop social skills. It’s another avenue to connect them to school and, probably most important to students, it's just fun.”


Maki spends about a half-hour each with four separate elementary classes every Monday and three different classes each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Those classes rotate out after six weeks and 13 new ones take their place. The goal, said Principal Megan Reisz, is to have every student complete four rotations of music during the school year.


On Thursday last week, Maki met with a group of second-graders in the campus’ media center. She sat them in assigned seats in a circular formation and worked with them on the concept of rhythm. The students sang along with Maki, who helped them identify the difference between a single note – “tah” – and a quicker double note – “ti-ti.”


Maki then broke out rhythm sticks – think of small drumsticks – and had the children tap the sticks in coordination with their singing.


Based on the students’ reactions, they clearly enjoyed what they were doing.


Though many youngsters have access to music through their parents, older siblings and various kinds of entertainment away from school, Maki thinks exposing them to basic concepts at an early age can add richness to their education.


“It’s important to teach them the difference between their singing and speaking voice,” she said. “To teach them rhythm – fast vs. slow. Loud and quiet. To understand the contrasts. Mostly, it’s to get kids excited about music.”


Her goal is to have every child confidently singing by the end of the school year.


“Music is important to humanity,” Maki said. “It’s present in every culture around the world. It’s like any language – you have to practice writing it, reading it and speaking it to learn it. Our focus is on sound before sight – we want to expose them to what music sounds like before they learn to read it.”


The children’s excitement is palpable. Maki said she feels “like a rock star” when she walks onto campus and the students recognize her and shout her name.


One of the things that makes Mrs. Maki special is she is quick to form relationships,” Reisz said. “Her enthusiasm is contagious with the kids. When the kids are coming to her class, they get very excited. They can’t wait to go to music. They share that with their families, who are thrilled.”


The music classes also complement what is happening in the students’ regular classes.


“It’s an opportunity to take a break from academics,” Reisz said. “It’s an opportunity to use movement. There’s a rhythm and cadence to music that helps with mathematical skills as well. It ties into a lot of things.”


At Fox Road, there also is energy and excitement once again about music. Twomey has 70 students signed up for fifth-grade band in addition to the music classes he teaches next door at Ross Middle School. He said virtually all the fifth-graders are beginners and have no musical experience, but that they are at the right age to introduce instruments because their hands typically are big enough to play clarinets, saxophones, tubas and other horns.


“It’s a huge turnout,” Twomey said. “They’re very excited to learn.”


With so many students, the schedule was organized each day with a focus on a specific instrument group. For instance, Monday 10 Fox Road students make the short walk to Twomey’s music classroom at Ross to learn the saxophone. Tuesday is reserved for 17 students learning the clarinet and bass clarinet; Wednesday he teaches 14 youngsters how to play the trombone, tuba and baritone; Thursday he helps 15 students on the trumpet and French horn; and Friday is for 13 fifth-graders learning the flute and percussion instruments.


“It’s like you’re teaching French and Spanish and German all at the same time,” said Twomey, whose best instrument is the saxophone. “I have to know generally how to play each instrument moderately well in order to teach it.”


The school provides all the instruments. They are assigned individually to students, who can take them home to practice on. Some parents have provided their own instruments for their sons and daughters.


Twomey said many beginning students show surprising ability relatively quickly.


“It’s amazing to see transformation from one year to the next,” he said. “If you can start them early, by eighth grade they can play up to grade level and have fun doing it. That’s our goal. I want them to be successful and have fun doing it.”


Hughson Superintendent Brenda Smith is proud that the district was able to expand the music program to the youngest grades as well as restore fifth-grade band this year.


“It is a great way for our students to express their creativity and use a different part of their brain than they do in traditional school subjects,” she said. “Mrs. Maki and Mr. Twomey have helped create a wonderful music program in our district and we know this will inspire our young students to continue their passion for music education.”


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