It’s not her first concert, but Ashley’s still nervous to play in front of people.
“I’m a shy person and its embarrassing,” she explained.
It's the holiday concert season at schools around Oregon. At Ron Russell Middle School in east Portland, it's a day before the winter concert, where Class of 2025 project student Ashley will play with the orchestra.
Ashley has been playing the violin since sixth grade — she’s in seventh now. And she landed a spot in the school’s concert orchestra, which means she has an orchestra class every day of the week – just as much as academic subjects like math or English.
“I like it cause my friends make it fun, but I also like it because it’s just fun – with the songs and everything,” Ashley said.
Her favorite song to play right now is Black Violin's "A Flat," a fast-paced, rhythmic piece the string orchestra will perform at the winter concert.
Music is a big part of the culture at Ron Russell. Nearly half of the school's 900 students play in the orchestra or band, or sing in the choir. Eleven of the 17 Ron Russell students in OPB's Class of 2025 project are in music ensembles.
There are multiple levels for each ensemble, and students can participate part-time if they have a class conflict.
The opportunities are exceptional for a school district where 75% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty. Children in wealthier school districts are more likely to get extensive music education than students in poorer schools.
For more, read this national story about music in schools that was produced by our partner, The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Making Music A Priority
In the David Douglas School District, music is a priority from day one. In elementary school, students have music classes multiple times a week.
“Depending on the week, they either get it two or three times, for about a 45-minute block,” said Tom Muller, associate director of bands at David Douglas High School and the district's music coordinator.
And once students get to fifth grade, they can be a part of band, orchestra or choir. They start the day early, before class starts, at one of the district’s three middle schools. After class, it’s time for breakfast before students get shuttled to their elementary school.
Ron Russell choir director Kate Dogra said that with such a robust music program, students arrive in middle school ready for complex music and field trips.
“They’ve already had a lot of the foundational knowledge,” Dogra said. “They can already start to read music, which just means we get to move through things faster and get to more exciting experiences and open up their world to new opportunities faster.”
The district helps make music accessible to all students through low-cost instrument rentals from a district-wide inventory. At Ron Russell, grant money from The Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation has helped expand that even more.
At the district’s middle and high schools, music classes are scheduled first – with all other classes scheduled around them.
Muller said the key to the program’s success comes down to support from the school board and the superintendent all the way to building administrators.
“There’s always just been a value for not only music but also the arts,” Muller said.
For Ron Russell orchestra director Tammy Culp, the district’s support for music rivals its support for sports, giving students more opportunities.
“I feel like it’s more equal, which is not necessarily the case for other school districts,” Culp said.
Why Music Matters
John is another member of OPB’s Class of 2025 project, but he’s in the choir. He likes his teacher, he’s made friends in class, plus he likes the music. At the winter concert, his concert choir will perform one of his favorites — “Si Si Ni Moja,” a song performed in English and Swahili.
“It’s pretty much about how everyone is equal in their own ways, but it has a really good beat to it,” John said.
In a year John said has been tougher academically, the choir remains enjoyable.
“With music, you can’t really mess it up,” John said.
However, at David Douglas High School, the 287 students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades taking a music ensemble class have a grade point average that’s about half a point higher than students in the same grades not taking a music class.
Aside from academics, Muller said being a part of music builds other skills, like work ethic and how to be a part of a team.
And Dogra said music class gives students a place to express emotions.
“We are able to harness those emotions and show them ways to express them in a safe and exciting environment that students don't always get in a regular classroom,” Dogra said.
And in middle school, both Dogra and Muller said being a part of a musical ensemble can give students a sense of belonging.
“Middle school is such an amazing, crazy age to begin with that I think finding a place to belong – where you have a group of people that have this shared interest in music,” Muller said. “… It’s kind of like a safe haven for them.”
And for some students, those feelings and relationships extend beyond a class.
More Than Music
Fellow Class of 2025 student Vivianna plays the saxophone in Ron Russell’s band. She said being in the band lets her express her talent. But she also likes how helpful and funny her band teacher, Tawnya Garcia, is.
“When people make jokes, she makes funnier jokes and all the class laughs,” Vivianna said. “It’s a funny class and a serious class.”
Vivianna’s been in band since fifth grade. She’s had the same teacher for three years, which is uncommon when it comes to core academic classes like math or science.
It’s built a relationship between teacher and student that can last for years.
“I care not just about their grades and playing music, but I care about them beyond that because I see them for four years,” Culp said. “I get to hear about their basketball games, I get to hear about their football games, when their cat dies, or when they’re struggling at home with a circumstance.”
Teachers said the strong relationships also extend to those between Ron Russell's staff. So instead of competing for student participation in one ensemble over another, Garcia said the staff encourages students to be a part of as many music groups as they choose.
“We just want you in music so that you’re enjoying yourself and learning a new skill and being part of the team,” Garcia said.
The mutual support extended to Ron Russell’s recent concert, where ensembles representing choir, band, and orchestra came together for a combined performance of holiday songs.
Spending multiple years with an instrument can also give students something they’re passionate about and interested in pursuing in the future.
Seventh-grader John is heading to Eugene next month to be a part of a statewide choir. Vivianna wants to be a music teacher.
John, Vivianna, and Ashley all want to continue making music in high school or beyond.
And after years of disinvestment, statewide leaders say music programs around Oregon are coming back – and receiving more support.