Tongass School of Arts and Sciences students practice playing instruments

Tongass School of Arts and Sciences students practice playing instruments as part of TSAS' band program in a classroom this week. Courtesy Jessica Wallin

Tongass School of Arts and Sciences students are ready to make some music as the school's band program gets underway once again.

Melanie Cornwall, TSAS' new band teacher, was a TSAS student herself, and remembers participating in the school band.

There hasn't been a designated band at the school for a few years, including this past school year, due to COVID-19, Cornwall told the Daily News during a recent phone interview.

"I actually went to Tongass School myself and so I was in band when I was at school," she said. "So as soon as I was hired for the music and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) position, I knew that I wanted to bring band back."

And this year, the program is back. All TSAS students in the fifth and sixth grades participate in the band.

Cornwall explained that music education at all ages teaches valuable lessons and life skills to children.

"(It's) a lot of math and it helps with the discipline because you have to be practicing all the time," she explained. "There's a lot of teamwork involved because you are one instrument that's part of an ensemble."

She continued, "I know a lot of people who play instruments, and playing an instrument was the reason that they kept going to school. You know, it's the highlight of their day. It's the time when they get to go and express themselves in a different way. And I think that's so important to have that as part of the day, where you're not necessarily just sitting down and learning something, but you're just doing something for the joy of it."

The program is still taking shape after beginning this fall, with fundraisers underway for equipment. The ongoing "Level up our Music Room" fundraiser will raise money for music folders and band stands, and the "Pitch in for Percussion" fundraiser is seeking to add xylophones to the band program. Both fundraisers can be found at www.donorschoose.org.

"We've been looking at different types of band instruments and what they sound like and what they look like," Cornwall explained. "Because for a lot of kids, this is the very first time they've been exposed to any band instruments."

Students have the choice to pick up flute, clarinet, trombone, trumpet, snare drum, euphonium, tuba or the French Horn. Cornwall noted that one student has even taken to an oboe.

"It'll be nice because fifth grade will act as a beginning band, where kids will be introduced to their instruments and we'll spend more time learning how to use their specific instrument," Cornwall said. "And then in sixth grade, they'll have already had a year under their belt. This year everybody's starting at square one, so it's two beginning bands."

By starting to learn to play an instrument in elementary school, Cornwall said students will be able to make an informed choice about whether they want to continue that education as they advance into middle and high school.

"So when they're looking at choosing, they're making an educated choice, not just saying 'Oh, you know, I've never tried band and I don't really want to try band,'" Cornwall explained. "They're saying, 'Oh, I did band for two years with this instrument and I want to continue doing that.' Or, 'I did band, not my thing. I'm going to do something else.' But then they actually know, because they've spent the time doing it."

While band is only mandatory for the fifth and sixth graders, younger TSAS students also get early exposure to music.

TSAS' music education program is geared to teaching students about instruments, beats and rhythms from their first years at the school.

"Our kindergartners right now are working on steady beat and feeling beats in music and listening to music," Cornwall noted. "Our first and second graders just got their recorders. So they'll use their recorders to work on learning the treble clef. Then they're combining what they learned in kindergarten with adding notes."

Third and fourth graders are beginning to learn to play piano and ukulele as they work on understanding music theory.

"So that way, by fifth and sixth grade, even though they're just starting that particular instrument ... they have a whole elementary school experience getting then set up, ready to read and understand music. And so they're learning a new instrument, but they're not starting from square one," Cornwall said.