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The list describing how music has changed the lives of three Hellgate High students goes on and on and on.

They made friends. It helped ease the transition from eighth grade to high school. They were able to travel to other cities, other states and sometimes internationally. They grew more confident and developed better communication skills. They did better in other classes.

"It just made me a better person," said senior Bridger Liston, who plays the bass in orchestra.

Liston, as well as his twin Kat and fellow senior Lauren D'Angelo, are organizing a fundraiser concert, "Money for Music," to benefit Missoula County Public Schools' high school music programs. It's part of their community service project as National Honor Society members.

"We've all been in music for several years and it's had such an effect on our lives, we thought it would be nice to give back," Bridger Liston said. "What better way to showcase all the talent in Missoula?"

The money raised from the concert will go to the high school music programs, an effort to boost budgets that over the years often remain stagnant.

Years ago, there were 35 students in orchestra, said Hellgate and Sentinel orchestra teacher Ryan Davis. Today there are 90, but the budget is the same.

These budget constraints are felt by many fine arts programs, in Missoula, as well as statewide and nationwide. When school districts have to make budget cuts, music and arts programs are often the first on the chopping block.

"Because of various influences of other factors, sometimes funding goes up and down," said MCPS fine arts supervisor John Combs. "But what typically happens is we have some young people who are bright, they're energetic and they see all kinds of exciting things for themselves – and they want to make that happen.

"I don't know if there's any funding stream in the country that would completely fund a child's dreams."


The Jan. 24 concert is packed with talent.

Band, orchestra, choir and jazz band from the three urban high schools will perform. You'll hear the chamber orchestra, a new orchestra that combines Hellgate and Sentinel. A trio, the Vestivals, will perform. There will be a few solo singers, including Hellgate junior Maris Ward, who was the First Night Spotlight winner two years ago. The Hellgate Chevaliers will sing. Hellgate's Diego Kjelland, Deegz, will rap. The Slayden Family Band will perform bluegrass. Billy Stone and Elissa Taylor will perform a piano duet.

"We wanted to give people a little taste of everything," Liston said.

It's not new to see music students taking it upon themselves to raise money for various musical endeavors, from trips across the state or country to uniforms to scholarships.

Hellgate's band traveled to Hawaii for the 75th anniversary Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade last month. They did so by fundraising. The marching band marched in the Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, for years. They raised money to get there. You'll usually spot young musicians selling chocolate or fruit to fundraise for their programs.

"I just applaud their energy and enthusiasm for making this event happen so things can continue to progress and grow," Combs said.

Special guests also like to come to the schools, and Combs said it's good to fund those events. Most recently they included Philip Sheppard, a renowned cellist and professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and Butterscotch, a rapper who performed for middle-schoolers while she was in Missoula for a concert.

"Missoula is a hub for that, for people who are not necessarily coming here for a gig, but they're on their way someplace," he said. 

Paying for some of these experiences comes from Create Missoula, a fund that supports arts education in the schools "outside what any budget would be able to foresee," Combs said.

The arts – music, theatre, visual and media arts, and dance – got a boost in MCPS four years ago when the district became an Any Given Child participant, a Kennedy Center program that encourages the expansion of arts education in K-8. Missoula was the only city in Montana chosen to participate, and one of only two in the northwest (Portland is the other).

From Any Given Child came SPARK! Arts Ignite Learning, a community-wide effort to expand arts education in MCPS.

"If you doubled our funding, we would be able to spend it, but it is what it is," Combs said. 

"I don't think fine arts have taken any particular cut when nobody else was. I think when it happened, it's been fair and equitable. Everyone hates to see it –part of the reason being Missoula is a place that values fine arts. It doesn't take too long living in this town to see it's an important part of who we are."


MCPS' instrument inventory "is under constant need of repair."

Students can rent instruments from the district. Those rental fees "keep that group of instruments afloat" when it comes to annual repairs, Combs said, and when "the old soldiers finally get so tired that they're not working anymore."

"We have to replace those instruments out of that fund, which is self-generated by rental fees," he said. "That's a bit challenging at times."

The district can't afford to have one music teacher per school, so the fifth grade band and orchestra teachers – Tim Aston and Ryan Belski – travel school to school.

"It's the most efficient way to get a high-quality music teacher who can be full-time," Combs said. "It's the same with art. We used to have two art teachers that served all of MCPS elementary, K-5. Now we have three, and we hope to add more."

D'Angelo said her music teachers' passion is what makes the program great. Music teachers are unique, Davis said, because they spend countless hours over four years with these young musicians, whereas teachers in other subjects may only have a student for one semester or one year.

"It has so much to do with the teaching," D'Angelo said. "If the teachers don't want to be there, students won't either."

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