Musicians have long flocked to Missoula for the city’s vibrant arts and culture scene. The migration of musicians, along with those born and raised here, lends a public school district some of the best music educators in both the state and the nation.
Missoula County Public Schools was recently recognized as one of the best communities for music education in the nation by the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation. The award cites the efforts of teachers, administrators, parents, students and community leaders to make music education a central part of the district’s curriculum.
“The MCPS music department is strong for a lot of reasons,” said John Combs, MCPS’ fine arts program supervisor. "We have tremendous support from our community. We live in a town with a rich tradition of music-making, and it shows in its children. We also have a fantastic music education staff.”
MCPS is one of 623 school districts in 41 states, out of the nation’s more than 13,000 school districts, recognized this year by the NAMM Foundation.
For the award, researchers from the Music Research Institute at the University of Kansas work with the Best Communities for Music Education program to evaluate schools and districts based on funding, teacher qualifications, program standards and access to music instruction.
Early music education has also been associated with improved cognitive development, verbal memory, academic performance, reading ability and motivation, in addition to having a positive impact on well-being and social development, according to a review of numerous studies published in Frontiers of Neuroscience.
MCPS gets students started young, with music programs throughout elementary school, and required fine arts credits that span the early years to high school.
In fifth grade, all MCPS students participate in either orchestra, choir or band as a required credit, and students are encouraged to choose whatever instrument stands out to them.
“There’s a day where they pass instruments around and you pick whatever you want,” said Ally Fradkin, a Hellgate senior who plays clarinet and tenor saxophone in nine different bands at the school.
Fradkin said students are encouraged to stick with music throughout their years at MCPS, although they’re also encouraged to explore other arts to their liking.
When students reach middle school, they have the option to continue playing an instrument or singing in choir, or they can opt for a different fine arts credit through visual arts or drama.
“In fifth grade, you really learn what your instrument sounds like,” Fradkin said. “In middle school, you learn how to tune in and listen to others and what a community of players is going to sound like, and then when you get to high school, you learn music theory and sight reading.”
At the high school level, the district’s band and orchestra programs have gone on to play at regional, state and international festivals and events.
The band programs at Hellgate, Big Sky and Sentinel high schools have all been recognized in recent years for trips they’ve taken to prestigious venues throughout the country.
“All of that strength from the younger years translates into some really killer programs in high school,” said Leon Slater, Hellgate’s band director.
The Hellgate Wind Ensemble, for example, recently returned from the Pacific Basin Music Festival in Hawaii where they were selected as the top band of the festival.
At the festival, the students workshopped with professors from the University of California-Berkeley and CalTech, and even had the opportunity to learn a piece commissioned for them after their recording was chosen from the submissions for the festival.
The song, called “Tweet, tweet” focused on the theme of nature versus technology and social media’s presence in modern-day life.
The students combined the use of their instruments with electronic tweet sounds they played from their phones.
“One of my favorite parts is that he actually wrote lines in it where if you took different notes, the names of the notes would spell out ‘Hellgate High School’ phonetically,” said Sophia Richter, a Hellgate senior who has played tenor saxophone, clarinet and even guitar for several school bands throughout the years.
The Sentinel High School band also played recently at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Next week, students from Big Sky High School will play at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the fun opportunities to travel and play in music festivals, music programs give students a leg up in other areas of school and life.
“It’s my belief that music education through music performance is an incredibly important aspect of our culture and of our ability to develop as human beings, as listeners, as people that respond to other people and absorb other ideas,” said Jesse Dochnahl, the band director at Big Sky.