A music program left vulnerable by the funding squeeze not only excells at teaching students but elevates the culture of the entire community
The systematic reduction of state funding for public education in Wisconsin that began nearly five years ago threatens school music programs. The state aid cuts force priority-choices on school districts that necessarily favor core subjects over the arts. Music education programs are quite expensive and thus even more vulnerable.
How then do you explain the fact that music education in Port Washington-Saukville School District schools is thriving?
The explanation is that the public school music program here belongs not just to the schools but to the community. It teaches students, of course, but at the same time it enriches the culture of the community, and residents respond with support that goes beyond paying school tax bills.
The school Christmas concerts featuring the concert bands, symphonic winds and jazz band that will be presented this month will be dutifully attended by proud parents and grandparents of the performers, but there will also be a great many in the audiences who are there just to hear stirring, entertaining music performed well.
Typically, the post-concert talk following performances by elementary and middle school music groups will be about how far and how fast the children have progressed in their musicianship and singing. But the comments after high school concerts will be of a different sort, often expressing astonishment at the musical sophistication and polish of the performers.
Similar responses are the norm at other concerts during the year and when high school music groups such as the madrigal and vocal jazz singers, Limited Edition a capella group and jazz band perform at events around the community.
Much of the credit goes to the heads of the high school’s stellar music department, Choral Director Dennis Gephart and Band Director Alan Dust, and other music teachers in the district, but it can be shared by the many school district residents who contribute their financial support to the music program.
Encouraged by a very active Port Washington High School Music Boosters group, which functions as a non-profit organization that can accept tax deductible gifts, contributions from residents have purchased a splendid Steinway grand piano for the high school and are building a fund to replace ancient band instruments. Community fundraising efforts also help underwrite the cost of extracurricular music activities including band and choir trips.
A concert to be held in the high school auditorium on Jan. 2 is being billed as a music department fundraiser—and with sponsorship encouraged at various levels it will certainly be that—but it will also be a remarkable cultural event, a program featuring performances by scores of alumni of the Port High music program. It is a marker of the success of that program that about half of the graduates who will perform are pursuing music careers or are already working as performers and teachers.
The recent $49.4-million school referendum speaks to the place the music program occupies in the community. The high school improvements authorized by that vote include marvelous new spaces and facilities for music education and, notably, performances to which the public will be invited. That these significant expenditures were proposed by the school board and approved by voters is testament to the influence and importance to the community of the school district music program.
The state funding cuts that threaten music programs have been coming amid a drumbeat of disparagement in the Legislature for public schools and the quality of the education they provide. The music departments of the Port Washington-Saukville School District have an answer for that. Here public schools not only excel at teaching music but elevate the culture of the entire community in the process.