Music builds heritage - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Music builds heritage

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Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004 5:22 am | Updated: 4:33 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

May 16, 2004

From the outside, it’s not always easy to find the beauty within Carson Junior High School.

Nearly one-third of the west Mesa school’s students live in single-parent homes, and more than three-fourths are from low-income families.

Nearly one-third of the west Mesa school’s students live in single-parent homes, and more than three-fourths are from low-income families.

Carson seems to make more headlines when its students are in trouble than when they score well on tests.

But walk onto the Carson campus at 525 N. Westwood, follow the sidewalks where gardeners are planting and pruning with care, and open the door to the school’s music department.

Something beautiful spills out: The sound of strings and sopranos, trumpets and tenors — a mix of musical talent ranked among the top 10 percent of junior high schools nationwide.

This is no surprise to the parents, students, teachers and staff who make up the Carson community. They’ve known for years that their school is a place where people work hard, where people care — a place where music is a much-honored tradition.

"Every school, if you look for it, will have its bad elements. Every school, if you look for it, will have its high achievers," said parent and neighborhood resident Cathy Worcester, whose son and daughter attended Carson and performed in the school’s orchestra. "I’ve had no qualms about sending my children to Carson, and certainly, the music has made a huge difference."

In March, Carson’s advanced band, orchestra and Encore Choir earned gold ratings at the Forum Music Festival at Cypress College in California — one of many musical awards Carson has won over the years. It’s an accomplishment that places the Carson students in the top 10 percent of their age group, said band instructor Cindy Gardner.

"You have to play exceptionally well to do that," said orchestra instructor Sonya Brittin. "It’s not easy."

Nor is it easy to take a group of adolescents and teenagers and transform them into musicians and artists. But vocal music teacher Jeni Nye makes it look simple.

Recently, the 36 students in her Encore Choir presented row after row of T-shirts, jeans, flip-flops and Nikes as they slouched onto the risers waiting for class to begin. They were a typically noisy bunch as they joked and jostled each other. But then Nye raised her hands.

The teens rose in unison, all eyes focused on their teacher, and they sang: "Gloria in excelsis Deo . . . gloria in excelsis Deo . . ."

Perfect pitch. Perfect harmony.

A stickler for getting it right, Nye stopped the group to listen to the sopranos one row at a time, and then one girl at a time, making sure each hit the high note correctly.

Satisfied with the sopranos, Nye led the group in finishing that selection, and then immediately launched into the next one. Her class was fast-paced and energetic, with no time wasted between songs.

"One, two, three, four," she said, clicking her fingers. "One, two, three — go!"

Ninth-grader Heidi Selover,14, had always liked music and played the piano, but it wasn’t until she met Nye that she decided to take up vocal music.

"She started me on singing," Selover said. "She’s not just a teacher. She’s like one of your friends."

Nye said music not only brings joy to students’ lives, but also a confidence that spills over into their academic classes.

"We have a desire for all children to learn and experience music," Nye said. "Many children come to us without that experience. We take them and show them what they can do — and then watch them fly."

Ninth-grader Jeremy Horta, 15, was a campus jock who had never sung until signing up for Nye’s class in January. Now this football player, wrestler and track athlete has been chosen to sing a solo at Carson’s end-of-the-year concert.

"She cares about her students, to see them excel," Horta said of Nye. "My friends don’t believe me when I say I’m a singer."

Gardner said the Carson music department works well because the students arrive motivated and enthusiastic about music — something that Carson families have come to expect.

"The community really supports what we do," she said.

In return, the music teachers have given many years of service to the school — Nye, six years; Gardner, 13 years; Brittin, 23 years — and a firm belief that any child can be a musician.

"It takes some kids longer than others, but there is not one kid who can’t do this," Brittin said.

Gardner added, "All of us are just hoping we can change a few lives."

Statistics show Carson students face greater challenges than students in many other Mesa schools. For example, 76 percent come from homes with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced price school lunch program.

Despite the adversity, teacher turnover at Carson is low, said principal Bob Crispin. More than half of the school’s 81 teachers have 10 or more years experience, according to the 2003-04 Arizona School Report Card.

"These people are dedicated," Crispin said. "These teachers are committed to the kids."

And the kids know it.

On the walls of Nye’s classroom are notes Carson students have left over the years. One reads: "You picked us from so many because you knew we had something special, and then you made us the best. . . . We will never forget what you have done for us."

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