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REPORT: BUILDING A NEW MUSIC FACILITY

Mike Lawson • Archives • June 1, 2003

When York High’s band strikes up the school song in its new band hall, director and music department chair Ron Polancich hears more than just the music. He hears the fine-tuned harmony of school administrators, architects and taxpayers whose collaboration has resulted in Illinois’ most expensive school to date and a state-of-the-art music education facility. He also hears the final proof that his extensive, and sometimes taxing, involvement with the entire process has been worthwhile.

Built in 1919, York High School in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst required a complex renovation and construction project, keeping intact the original edifice while enlarging the school by 18 percent and thoroughly modernizing the interior. Pat Sumrow, a former York administrator for whom the position Construction Facilitator was created, consulted with Polancich, the music director, even before an architect had been hired. Knowing that a music classroom differs from a math or English classroom in significant but subtle ways and that a music department has specific architectural needs that other departments do not, Sumrow had asked Polancich and his music department colleagues to bring to preliminary discussions issues that an architect might otherwise miss.

“We interviewed all department staff members at least once with many follow-up discussions with chairpersons to determine and refine programmatic issues and to address problems with the old school site that a new one could help to solve,” Sumrow notes. “We tried to design areas using the term ‘program planning’ and developed plans that supported effective instruction and best practices.”

Polancich approached Sumrow’s request to develop a program plan the way he approaches teaching music.

“You ask yourself, ‘What do you want your kids to know when they walk out of the classroom?’ and you plan your teaching around that. You have an objective – for a student or building – and that drives the whole thing. The choral director wanted to be able to do some movement in front of the risers, so that drove the size of the choir room.”

In other instances, shortcomings with the previous facility provided impetus for features in the new facility. Having shared a room between the band and orchestra, the music faculty knew they wanted a dedicated band hall and separate orchestra room. The old school had housed nine music practice rooms for students but three had been sacrificed over the years to demands for storage and office space. The new facility has 11 practice rooms, several of which are large enough to accommodate complete sections of the band or orchestra.

“Once you know the number of rooms you want and how big you want them to be,” Polancich says, “it’s just math to get the total square-footage you’re talking about, which was a lot more than the architect expected it’d be.”

Discovering this need early enough in the design process to reallocate inches on blueprints is more cost-effective than addressing space needs inside a completed building.

The involvement of music faculty in the early planning yielded other unexpected considerations as well, from a need to monitor practicing students from a central location within the department to the department’s placement within the larger school structure.

” It’s a balancing act,” Polancich points out. “There are so many details to be mindful of, from the different MENC standards of oxygen per vocal vs. stringed instrument student to the traffic patterns of kids heading to classes. You have to balance the unique needs of each program – the piano lab and the practice room, the band hall and the storage space – with the needs of the entire department and then also with the realities of funding and the needs of the building as a whole. The old music department had been right off a main hallway. Now there’s only one entrance and it’s around a corner and down a hall from the rest of the school. Music kids like to hang out in the music department, and we like that, but we have a lot of expensive things in here. Having the department secluded keeps kids from wandering through.”

Not specifically trained in acoustics, but needing to consult in that capacity as well, Polancich turned to the MENC: National Association for Music Education, which has published recommendations for room sizes and dimensions that take into account the number of people the room will hold and the instruments it will accommodate. By doing research, talking to fellow educators and touring other schools, Polancich was able to advise the architects of what shapes and dimensions to avoid in drafting music classrooms and to keep in mind which rooms would need to house risers or technologies that would require higher ceilings or specialized wiring.

“Technology issues – particularly wiring for recording and video – can sneak up on you because, although relatively small, they need to be in place before the walls are finished,” he explains.

Also unique to a music department is the need for specialized construction techniques to help prevent sound transmission between practice spaces. The complexity of such acoustical considerations prompted the school’s administration to suggest the use of modular practice rooms.

“The department staff at first only wanted the conventional practice rooms,” Sumrow recalls, “but I suggested visits to nearly newly-built high schools that had the modular rooms. After they saw them and talked with other music educators, they felt half of the rooms might work best if they were modular. The modular rooms seem more quiet now and are preferred by students as they look more appealing.”

“These rooms that are built off-site are close to sound-proof,” adds Polancich, “and you know the acoustics are going to be right, but some of the ones we saw looked really cold.”
Concerned for students’ aesthetic as well as acoustic experience, Polancich worked with the rooms’ manufacturer, Acoustic Systems, to raise the ceiling heights to 10 feet, which helped remedy “that meat-locker feel” and allows even a tall violinist to practice while standing without hitting the ceiling with his bow.

Two of the school’s modular rooms were also equipped with an electronic enhancement package: a chip and speaker array which, Sumrow explains, “provides a more realistic experience for the students. They learn to modulate their volume and tempo for different environments. It makes an abstract idea real for them. Playing outdoors is different from playing in a tiny practice room and with this, they’re experienced in expecting those differences. The students appear to really like having the opportunity to simulate the actual environments in which they will perform – something that is very unique. Parents and visitors really are impressed by these rooms. It’s a little gimmicky, but the kids like it. You can record in there and make it sound like you’re playing in a cathedral.”

Knowing what kids are likely to like and what they’re likely to do is a specialty of teachers like Polancich – an additional expertise they bring to the planning of a new school building.

“In a high school, once you’ve done something once, there’s the entire weight of Tradition against you if you want to do it differently the second time,” he acknowledges. “If you eat candy in this classroom the first day, you always can. If the rooms are left unlocked, that’s the way they are, and it’s hard to switch to signing out a key. It’s tradition, so you make that work for you. When the kids first moved in, we were in the hallways every day giving directions to set up traffic patterns the way we wanted them, but now we don’t have to. It’s set. It’s a tradition!”

It is with the educator, however, that authority resides to determine what traditions are established or eradicated. It is likewise the music educator who is best able to speak for the needs of music students and to anticipate what those students will need in a new facility. Acoustics can be researched and guessed at but are not known until construction is complete – the entire realm of technology is difficult to predict.

“I don’t know what the future holds,” says Polancich. “I don’t know about the technology. That’s hard – trying to see ahead into what we may want in the future. You want to be able to project. The technology is overwhelming. We have phones in the office, e-mail, computer availability, and I couldn’t have predicted that 10 years ago. You just don’t know what, in 10 years from now, we’ll be wishing we’d thought of. We’ve tried to plan traffic flow and how the rooms are located. Each room is in the right place. We’ve planned for security that wasn’t an issue before. The future is just difficult to imagine.”

Polancich’s role as consultant, seer, and amateur acoustician was not finished once construction was. In fact, the biggest changes to the facility post-construction have been acoustically driven.

“Except for the pre-fab rooms,” Polancich notes, “You just don’t know what a room is going to sound like until it’s been built.”

He’s brought in some help from architectural acoustics consultants Kirkegaard Associates, who have visited the school to advise on tuning the non-modular practice rooms and band hall, adding acoustical boards and replacing the entire mineral board ceiling with less reflective fiberglass.

From outside consultants to school administrators, from architects to educators, Sumrow has conducted a complicated orchestration of diverse people and specialties because she is convinced that the involvement of music educators in school construction from earliest planning yields the best results for the students and the administration. This emphasis on the students – from how they’re likely to behave to where they’ll hang out and what they’re likely to enjoy – is evident from every member of the faculty and administration.

In fact, both Polancich and Sumrow credit this concern for students with the impetus for the entire project. Sumrow, noting that York High has long enjoyed a reputation for excellence in many areas and is nationally recognized for the caliber of its music program, says, “The school’s programs have always been well known, but their facility was detracting from their ability to teach. The new facility hasn’t created excellence, but it has accelerated it.”

And Polancich attributes that concern for students beyond the school to the community at large, saying of the voters in Elmhurst who passed the $90 million building referendum with 75 percent voting yes: “There’s a real interest in kids in our district, and I think they recognize that, and in fact, demand it.”

The referendum proposed that only 125,000 square feet of the existing 495,000-square-foot facility would be retained and renovated as part of a 600,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility, and of the five-year process, two years would be devoted to planning – a mixed blessing for Polancich and his colleagues.

“The long planning stage is very beneficial, but also stressful. There are many details to be mindful of, and it generates many additional meetings, which add to your workload of classes and rehearsals and other meetings. Also, there’s all the research you have to do and then the trips you take to tour other facilities. It helped tremendously that our input really seemed to matter to the administration.”

As preparations to break ground for the new school neared completion, Polancich studied the final blueprints and led his band to a precise point across an empty lot. They played the school song, and left for the summer. Three years later, with only a few of the same students, he stood in the newly completed band hall and told his band that the last tune played in that precise spot was their school song. They played it again, the school year started, and Polancich heard more than just the music.

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