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Music Matters: McKinney ISD Receives the NAMM Best Communities for Music Education Award for Second Year in a Row (Part One)

Shane Mauldin|
Thursday, July 19, 2018
MISD has received national recognition for its music program for the second year in a row from NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants).

MISD has received national recognition for its music program for the second year in a row from NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants).

McKinney, Texas – Just about every guitar player who’s been at it for awhile has a story about the “one that got away”—a guitar they should have bought when they had the chance or one they should have held on to when they had it.

For MISD Director of Fine Arts Dr. Dan White, it was a 1957 Fender Stratocaster—a highly coveted vintage guitar both then and now. His was stolen at a show back in the ’70’s when he was working his way through college. He still has the guitar that took its place—a perfectly nice ’76 Strat. But, anybody who knows guitars knows that the replacement couldn’t really replace his original guitar. Today, the ’57 (wherever it landed) is likely worth around $25,000.

“Probably one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever been through,” White said with a rueful chuckle, leaning back in his chair in his office at MISD’s Central Administration. “It was a great guitar,” he added with a shake of his head.

band playing onstage

MISD Director of Fine Arts Dr. Dan White (center) with his 1976 Stratocaster on stage with a local band in Wichita Falls during his 16 year tenure as the Wichita Falls ISD director of fine arts (Courtesy of Dan White)

Guitar drama notwithstanding, music was been a part of White’s life for a long, long time. He’s worked as a studio session musician, played in gigging bands and served for some 37 years as a choral director and teacher in K-12 public school and college settings.

He was the Wichita Falls ISD director of fine arts for 16 years, and for the past three years, he has overseen the McKinney ISD Fine Arts Department. White knows firsthand the vital role that music plays in the lives of students—and the power of a great music education program.

For the second year in a row, the strength of the MISD program has garnered the district a NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Best Communities for Music Education Award.

“We get a lot of recognition from Texas, statewide, but it’s nice to get recognition on a national level from NAMM,” White said, “to get that recognition that our program is one of the top programs in the nation.”

In this installment of a two-part story, we talked with White as well as a recent graduate and a middle school musician about the positive impact that music has had on their lives — essentially, why music matters.

“There are so many layers to music education,” White said. “We talk a lot about having students really engaged, and that is an important component. But, the value of music goes beyond simply the engagement. It goes into the notion of being part of the group, into the idea that I have to unselfishly give of myself so that the group can be better. Even though there is a lot of individuality involved in playing music, when you take a look at bands and choirs and orchestras, there is the aspect that the sum is greater than the parts.

“Furthermore, when you think about playing an instrument and the time it takes to get good at it, the process develops discipline. I mean, it’s not a ‘you just pick it up and play it’ kind of thing,” he said. “There has to be commitment there and perseverance and the stick-to-itiveness to attain a goal.”

In addition to all of that, White pointed out that performing music has tremendous cognitive benefits as well. “There’s a lot of research out there now showing that engaging upper level thinking skills and creativity runs over into every aspect of one’s life,” he said. “Music students do better in math; they do better in English; they do better in all of these things. If you take a kid that’s playing an instrument in a group at a high level, they have to process their own notes, their own rhythms, their own tuning…all of that. And, it is all happening on the fly. ‘Am I tuning with the group? Am I balancing with the group?’ There are a thousand things going on in the brain at the same time, so those upper level thinking skills really push kids to be creative and out of the box thinkers—and that tends to spill over into everything else.”

White’s musical journey began years ago in the church choir. That led to the high school choir, and eventually to the all-state choir during his junior and senior years. “That kind of steered me…that, and some great teachers steered me toward getting into the business and being a choral director,” White said. Nearly forty years later, he can look back on a life that has been filled with music. Without it, everything would have been completely different.

“Without music education and great teachers, there’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have tracked the way I did,” White said as he mused over what his life might have been like. “I might have still continued to play, but it would have definitely been one of those things where…who knows where I would have ended up or what I would have been doing right now.”

Ashley Wu — MHS Royal Pride Marching Band
The same might be said for the high school career of 2018 McKinney High School Salutatorian Ashley Wu. She didn’t exactly come to the music program kicking and screaming, but she also wasn’t knocking down the door to get in.

But, along the way, something changed.

“I got into band in middle school when I was like, ‘Ok, I have to do a fine arts credit,’ and my sister Allison was in band. She said, ‘Yeah, it’s pretty fun,’ and so I tried out, and I picked the clarinet because my fingers weren’t long enough for any of the other instruments,” Ashley said.

With piano lessons in her background, music was familiar territory, and playing the clarinet came fairly naturally to Ashley. “I practiced a little bit, but I wasn’t super motivated until high school to really be better.”

student sitting on steps

2018 McKinney High School Salutatorian and Royal Pride Marching Band Drum Major Ashley Wu

Middle school band was fun. But, with high school on the horizon, Ashley wasn’t sure that she wanted any part of the work she saw Allison putting in during her freshman year in marching band. “I was about to drop band because I saw my sister, and she had these awful band tans, and she said her summers were gone and she just looked really tired,” Ashley said.

“But, she encouraged me to join, and my mom was like, ‘I can go watch you both perform at football games.’ I said, “Fine. I’ll do it for two years and then drop out.’ I wasn’t really planning ever to stay in it for four years, but then when I joined…having my sister’s friends and being able to find my own group already…it would be really hard to make friends just going by myself and trying to enter all these different groups as a freshman. It’s just really hard.

“But, knowing that I had 200 friends around me on the first day of school because I had already practiced during the summer all those hours…it was really comforting to know that I always had somebody to talk to, and I was never going to be alone,” she said.

By the end of her sophomore year, Ashley was fully invested in the MHS band. “I thought, ‘I really do enjoy this, and I don’t just want to use it for the fine arts credit and the P.E. credit. I want to stay in it longer.’ Because I saw how much fun Allison had, and I was starting to have a lot more fun, too.”

Along with the fun, her talent and hard work didn’t go unnoticed, and MHS Band Director Ken Ringel encouraged Ashley to try out for drum major during her sophomore year.

The process forced Ashley well out of her comfort zone. “You have to do an interview process, and you have to do a vocal command,” she explained. “My voice was not as low and couldn’t really carry—it was super high. There’s also a marching portion to it because you have to be able to teach marching skills to the younger freshmen.

“Then I had to come up with my own salute which I definitely YouTubed and Googled but couldn’t find anything really good. I was so embarrassed when I did it, but they were like, ‘Good job!’ I guess the most important part was the interview and just conducting the different types of patterns.”

She spent the next two years helping lead the Royal Pride Marching Band and through the process, learned the nature of true leadership.

“I learned how to be a servant leader and to be willing to do the dirtiest jobs and the lowest forms of stuff—even though I was in one of the higher positions,” she said. “I had to sacrifice so much time. We had to show up early to rehearsals and stay after and clean up everybody’s stuff—get in trouble for things that really weren’t our fault.

“The four drum majors got really close because we were the highest student leadership position, and so it was a lot of pressure,” she said. “But, it was also a lot of fun being able to have little perks here and there, having our names called out over the speaker. That was a small thing, but it kind of made the whole thing worth it.

“I also learned that it’s not that scary to be the first person to say, ‘Hi,’ to someone new,” she added. “As a freshman I was super shy around new people and teachers, and I couldn’t really communicate properly because I was socially awkward, but when I became a drum major, I really had to make an effort to get to know all the underclassmen and just be a friend to them first before I could become a leader to them.”

Ashley will be heading to the University of Texas in the fall to study business. But, she’s not done with music.

“I’m going to audition for one of their spring semester bands because I want to continue playing, but I don’t think I have time to do the marching band there. I want to do sit-down band, though, and see how it’s different,” Ashley said. “Even though I might not be majoring in it, I definitely want to keep up the skill.”

Ellie Hassler — Faubion Middle School Orchestra
Ellie Hassler, who’ll be an eighth-grader this fall, is really just starting out on her journey in music, and she has chosen one of the more difficult paths—the violin.

But, she’s in the right place for it. The Faubion Middle School Orchestra directed by Kari Zamora and Christine Glass is an award-winning program that has received statewide honors from TMEA as well as the distinction of having performed onstage at the renowned Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.

Ellie first picked up the violin in fourth grade but had to put it on hold after about a year. She’d dabbled in piano, but the first time she heard a violin, she knew that was the instrument that she had to play. It moved her.

standing with violin

Ellie Hassler, member of the Faubion Middle School Orchestra

When her family came to McKinney, and Ellie entered middle school, she recognized an opportunity to take up the violin again.

“I heard about the wonderful orchestra program at Faubion, and I remembered how much I loved that year that I played the violin,” Ellie said. “It was no competition between the violin and any other instruments.”

In Zamora’s orchestra class, Ellie found that the endeavor would be a tough one, but it was a welcome challenge. “It’s a lot of fun. I enjoy being pushed a lot, and Mrs. Zamora definitely gets that we like to be pushed,” she said.

Like Ashley Wu, Ellie found community among her musical peers. “I was able to recognize kids in my classes because they were in my orchestra class, and so I got to know them, and now they’re some of my best friends at that school. It’s just amazing,” Ellie said. “The majority of my friends are from orchestra.”

While music brings people together, it also requires time on your own if you intend to play well. And, if you’re interested in cultivating a solid work ethic, the violin might be a good place to start.

“I normally spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours,” Ellie said of her daily practice regimen. “I practice five to six days a week, and it’s a lot of work. Not only do I have my orchestra music, but my private lesson teacher has all this music that I practice for her, too. It’s really rewarding in the end, but it does take a big chunk out of my day.”

The practice paid off this year when the Faubion orchestra traveled to San Antonio for competition. “We got all First Division, Best in Class and Best Performance overall—which was the most awards you could get,” Ellie said.

In addition to the friendships she’s made over the past two years in the Faubion orchestra, Ellie has found that the music itself offers an important outlet. “Orchestra is kind of a class where your emotions fly, and different pieces of music…Let’s say you’re angry because you got a bad grade on your test, and you play this really intense piece, then you can let that anger out and just fly with the music and it just calms you. One piece can make you incredibly sad and another can make you want to skip,” she said. “It’s amazing how our brains…We latch onto those notes, and we want to keep them with us.”

Ellie doesn’t envision herself making a living playing the violin. “I hope to play in college at weddings as a side gig. While I don’t see it being my career, I will always probably play music whether in a local orchestra or at my church or something,” she said. “I love it, and I enjoy the roller coaster it can take you on.”

Roller coaster, indeed. From a stolen guitar and 37 years in the business to two years in a middle school orchestra, music moves us all in different ways. But, one thing is sure; its effect on our lives isn’t limited to a momentary experience, and it continues to add dimension and shape to our lives long after the notes have faded away.

It’s mysterious and powerful. And, it matters.

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