Merlene Davis: Recruiting fifth graders to make music

Incoming fifth-graders at Arlington, Deep Springs, Dixie, Mary Todd, Maxwell, Northern, Russell Cave, Sandersville and Yates elementary schools will soon get a chance to learn to play a band instrument free of charge.

No experience necessary.

For the first time ever, band directors at those schools and at Bryan Station High School are hosting a four-day band camp in August that will help fifth-graders choose an instrument that fits their body type and that will give them instruction so that novice musicians can get a head start on band season this fall.

The camp, Northside Band Academy, is the brainchild of Michael Payne, assistant band director at Bryan Station. A graduate of the School for Creative and Performing Arts and the University of Kentucky, Payne discovered a similar program in Indianapolis where he had worked before returning to Lexington in 2010.

The goal is to entice more students to take up an instrument and increase the number of band students at middle schools that feed into Bryan Station. Payne said he wants the students to be taught correctly from the beginning so that they will stick with the instrument longer.

"The long run is the key," Payne said.

Payne wants to encourage students to play an instrument, and he wants them to play the correct instrument for their body design. To that end, from 4-8 p.m. May 31 at Bryan Station, band directors will help select an instrument that is suited for each child. Instrument selection and rental night will be as much fun for the teachers as for the students, Payne said.

Each student will be directed down a line of instruments and given a chance to try each one with an expert there to assist. The students will be taught how to shape his or her lips to play each one.

Thin or skinny lips are better suited for the French horn, he said. More substantial lips are better for the tuba or baritone. An overbite may prevent a student from playing the clarinet, he said.

"Just about any band director can spot those tendencies," Payne said. "It's just never been done on this scale around here. Just because their mother has a flute in the attic doesn't mean they should play it."

After selecting the best instrument, parents and guardians can then comparison-shop at several vendors who rent instruments. Parents need to come ready to pay the first monthly rental fee, which ranges between $25 and $40. Instruments can be rented from Fayette County Public Schools for $25, but those instruments are in limited supply. Preference goes to students who qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.

Also that evening, students can sign up to attend the Northside Band Academy camp that will be held at Bryan Station 6-9 p.m. Aug. 1-4.

At the camp, students will have individual instruction for about an hour a day, Payne said. They also will learn posture, tone production, assembly and maintenance for their instrument. There will be music theory classes conducted by their fifth-grade band director to encourage long-term success for the student. And they will participate in a combined concert on the last evening of the camp.

Those 12 hours of instruction are free, and the student will earn a certificate and a T-shirt.

If parents and students can't make it on May 31, call Bryan Station band directors at (859) 381-3311 to schedule an appointment for a Monday evening throughout the summer.

Learning to play an instrument has been found to have far-reaching effects for children. A Harvard-based study in 2008 found that children who study a musical instrument for at least three years have improved verbal abilities and other skills not associated with music.

I don't see how a parent can pass this up.

As Payne said, "Band members are winners in life."