Band Blast Off gives beginner musicians a boost

Nadya Mahdasian (left), Nathan Lynn and J.T. Foti (back row) practice trumpet during the summer Beginning Band Blast Off program.

Nadya Mahdasian (left), Nathan Lynn and J.T. Foti (back row) practice trumpet during the summer Beginning Band Blast Off program. Photo By submitted photo

Aug. 20, 2014

Few musicians can forget the first time they picked up an instrument. Jeff Gilchrist, band director in the Wauwatosa School District, said he still remembers his first time playing the clarinet.

The experience is likened to the "wand choosing the wizard" as in Harry Potter, Gilchrist said.

"The instrument chooses the student," he said.

Band starts at fifth grade in the Wauwatosa School District but doesn't leave beginners without a little boost — Band Blast Off.

Gilchrist and Andy Pforr, elementary band director, created the Beginning Band Blast Off program in 2010 for new band students.

Band Blast Off is a five-day summer school program held at McKinley Elementary School for three hours per day. The five-day camp is the equivalent of two months of instruction, since students only meet for band once a week during the school year.

Students are taught in small group sections with their individual instruments and then join together for large group sessions.

This year, 180 fifth-graders came to Blast Off out of the 280 that will be starting in the fall.

"Tosa always had a strong reputation for music," Gilchrist said. "It has been very culturally valued and supported here by parents and the district."

The teaching style is methodical. Instructors teach one note at a time and demonstrate instrument assembly and maintenance as well as correct embouchure, or how to shape your lips to the mouthpiece.

"Some instruments are more overwhelming than others," Gilchrist said.

Fifth-grade band offers flute, clarinet, oboe, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet, French horn, trombone, baritone and bells. The focus is on pitched instruments so students can learn to read music.

The five days aren't without their share of fun. Students can celebrate summer while learning music with Band Blast Off's spirit day, crazy hat day and sunglasses day.

"They have to walk out of there positive," he said.

One of the biggest achievements of the program is that at the end of five days, students are able to play full songs with the ensemble.

"The parents are always pretty amazed," Gilchrist said, especially since most, if not all, of the students start the week having never picked up an instrument before.

He added that students who participate in Blast Off have a higher retention rate in the band program.

"Early success is a determiner of how they perceive the activity. Early success is really critical," he said.

Band Blast Off has also helped the band reach new milestones during the school year. By the first holiday concert in December, the band is able to play full arrangements, rather than one-line songs.

"When everybody plays the same music together, they can follow each other," Gilchrist said. This teaches them to be "more confident musicians."

The only downside to Band Blast Off is that it is a one-time experience for beginners.

But those who do participate relish in the unique program.

"The kids who do Blast Off, that's one of the highlights of their music experience in Wauwatosa," Gilchrist said. "They'll wear the T-shirts until they don't fit anymore."


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