Full Notes: Middle School music program numbers growing

Abington’s middle school music teachers have a problem: they have too many student musicians to fit them all on the Middle/High School Auditorium stage. 

It’s what’s known in the industry as a good problem to have.

“It does present some challenges and we have to be organized and ready to accommodate a big group when we put them all together,” said Steve Shannon, head of Abington’s music department.

When the 5th and 6th grade music classes come together Tuesday night for their winter showcase, there will be more than 160 students playing saxophones, trumpets, trombones, flutes, drums, and other instruments. There will be so many student musicians that, once again, not only will the auditorium stage be filled, so will the floor in front of the stage. 

“It’s a good problem to have with those numbers,” Shannon said.

Not only have more Abington students tried an instrument the past couple years, more are returning for years two and three. Shannon credits that to a couple changes.

First, Abington students used to start with instruments in 4th grade. Post-pandemic, students now start in 5th grade, their first year at the big Middle/High School complex, which features a dedicated band room, longer class time, as well as smaller breakout rooms.

“As students transition to 5th grade from Woodsdale, there are a lot of firsts for them. Part of this excitement is the opportunity to play an instrument as part of their once-per-week music class,” said middle school music teacher Tim Leonelli.

“Starting students on instruments in 5th grade has had a huge impact on retention. While in Massachusetts 4th grade might be more common as a starting age, the national average is 6th grade. Older students have an easier time on some of the tricky fingering of the woodwind instruments and size of the brass instruments. They are much more resilient, as well.”

Middle School music teacher Tim Leonelli leads a rehearsal Monday

The music department also switched its lesson books, to the Hal Leonard Essential Elements Band Method Book. Shannon said the previous book “was a bit outdated in terms of its approach,” and that the new book helps students learn to read music and feel success earlier on in their development.

“In 5th grade it’s really appealing to get kids playing, making sounds, and playing successfully early on,” said Shannon. “It’s the changing nature of music education.

Fifth and 6th graders currently receive 45 minutes of music instruction per week.

“We start in sectionals, separated by instrument type for about 30 minutes, then play together for the last 15 minutes,” Leonelli said. “Students hear the weekly improvement and can share their experiences with their friends.”

Seventh and 8th grade musicians receive instruction three times every six days.

One hope is with more middle school students sticking with their instruments longer, that it will help grow the high school marching band and concert band programs, as well.

The Abington High School Concert Band has featured about 30 players in recent years. The Marching Band’s numbers had dipped into the teens, but was bolstered this year by a group of talented 7th and 8th grade musicians.

The program’s numbers had been trending downward even before the pandemic, which knocked out in-person, indoor instrument playing for nearly two years.

“When we came back to in-person learning, those freshmen and sophomores did not come back as juniors and seniors, ” said Shannon.

The music department is also trying to overcome scheduling conflicts at the high school level. Currently, band practice conflicts with AP classes for many students, forcing them to choose.

But the numbers are rebounding.

“We’ve seen the numbers trending and tracking since we’ve been back in person,” said Shannon. “Retention is much more strong between grades 5 and 6, and 6 and 7, and 8 and 9, and that’s really a credit to Tim Leonelli.”

The Abington Middle School 5th and 6th grade concert is tonight at 7 p.m., at the Middle/High School Auditorium.

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