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A Push for Strings: Merlyn Beard

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 10, 2009

In the early 1990s, there was no orchestra program in the Waterford (Mich.) School District; fast-forward to this past year, and the Waterford Kettering High School boasted over 90 string players, and over 250 fifth-graders in the district have picked up string instruments. It has been a slow process, but Merlyn Beard and the administration have been relentlessly building this program, from a meager foundation consisting of a pilot program teaching general music to fourth graders, to the latest accomplishments, which include 100-member symphony feature performances at the Michigan Music Festival and the National Orchestra Festival, among others, as well as raising money for charities no small feat in this day and age!

Merlyn Beard wasn’t always sure of the direction school music programs in Waterford would take when he began working in the district 15 years ago. Although he spent his youth focusing on orchestra and choir, he entered the Waterford system as a general music teacher in the elementary schools. Still, Merlyn knew that he wanted to work with student orchestras, and he saw his chance the very next year, when he began teaching a pilot string program involving all of the fifth graders in the district. The following year, they taught strings to fifth and sixth graders, and the year after that, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders, and so on, until that first class finally graduated from high school, eight years later, in 2003, and there was a full fledged orchestra program spanning from fifth grade through the end of high school.

There’s some poetic justice in that model, as a similar one many years prior brought Merlyn Beard into the world of music. While he had been singing in church from a very early age, it wasn’t until a fifth-grade assembly in a public school in Clawson, Michigan that Merlyn was introduced to instrumental music. At the behest of an orchestra teacher who was charmed by the ear for music the youngster had developed through singing, Merlyn picked up the cello, and so began his career in music.

School Band & Orchestra: When and how did you decide that you wanted to go into music education?
Merlyn Beard: Actually, my primary interest was composition. I really enjoyed my music theory class in high school and thought that that was what I wanted to focus on. The minister of music in my church was also very interested in composition. As I was thinking about college, he sat me down and we talked about my future. He told me that while I could focus on composition in college, he strongly suggested that I consider music education. That would still allow me to compose, but it would also mean that if I needed a job, I would be able to teach. It’s a really useful degree. So I began my undergrad at Oral Roberts University declaring as a music education major, but I took every composition class that I could.

I did my student teaching in Tulsa. At the time, 1989, 1990, music positions were kind of hard to find. So at the recommendation of my professors, as a string player, I did my student teaching in band and choir. Working with a marching band gave me the experience, that, in case there wasn’t an orchestra job available, I could still find work with a school band or choir.

I finished college in December of 1989, got married, and moved back to Michigan, where I’m from. I worked in a warehouse there for about six months. I put my name in for some subbing, but wasn’t getting many calls. After college, you have to get some income from somewhere. I continued to do some church work, and the church high school I had graduated from had a music opening. They had since closed the high school, but they were still doing K-8. So I signed on and was teaching band, some of the orchestra, choir, and all of the general music, as well as directing the church orchestra, which was the same one I’d grown up in all through high school. That was my first teaching job. We had about 110 kids and it was a great first experience with a small program. I had some guidelines to follow and was told that we were rebuilding the program, which had kind of fallen a bit from how it was from when I was there.

I taught there for four years. In those four years, we started to establish a good foundation. Being a small Christian school, we didn’t go to band and orchestra festivals, but we did take the choirs to choral festivals and we were doing very well, there. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we reached the point where every single fifth grader was starting on an instrument. That was my first time working with that kids that young and trying to get all of them involved. And from there, we were able to get about 70 percent of them to continue playing their instruments as sixth graders.

A Push for Strings: Merlyn BeardSBO: When you’re trying to increase the participation of students in the younger grades, is the challenge working with the students? Or is it working with the parents or the administration? What was keeping kids from participating?
MB: Part of it was the kids. They weren’t sure they wanted to play music. It was crucial that we give them a really good experience, so that they would just get into it. This was 1990-1994, and the economy was okay, but nothing great, so having the finances to pay for an instrument was still problematic. Fortunately, the school was able to present instruments to all of the students who wanted to play, which really helped the families decide that it was okay for the kids to give it a try. A lot of parents said things like, “Well, I’m not sure I want to invest in an instrument until I know my kid is going to stay with music.” So when we were able to give everyone a one-year trial at no cost to them, there was no financial risk. That definitely helped us get a lot of kids involved. Looking back on it, the downside was that you need to have the families buy in to the program, and sometimes that needs to come through financial support, so that the parents encourage the students to practice or the student feels obligated in some way. As a young teacher, I kind of overlooked that in an effort to keep everything growing and going. At the same time, I was teaching choir and the choirs were going to festival and doing well, too.

At the end of my fourth year, the church decided to shut down the school. Rather than scale back a bunch of the programs, they decided to close the school completely. They wanted excellence or nothing, so they chose to close.

I had been attending the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association and I was active with them, so at one of the meetings, I mentioned that my school was closing and I was looking for another job.

SBO: Music Educators Associations are great for networking. Did something pan out from there?
MB: Yes, someone mentioned that the Waterford School District was looking at starting an orchestra program the next year and I should give the supervisor of performing arts a call. The supervisor told me that he was thinking of putting together an orchestra, but had immediate an opening for a general music teacher. I had experience teaching general music, fortunately, and so I went through the interview process. School ended in the middle of June, and by the beginning of July, I had the job at Waterford. That first year, I taught general music in three different elementary schools and I taught two of the three pilot programs in strings. We got a music company to donate a classroom set of about 30 violins and I met with the kids for about a half an hour, twice a week. This was for fourth grade, and any kid in that grade who wanted to be in the program could join. The kids loved it and so the board decided to institute an orchestra. There had previously been an orchestra in the district, in the •60s and early •70s, but that eventually died in part because of cost factors, I understand.

As we got ready to start after doing the pilot project and my supervisor was a string player, he played the viola, so he was very interested in making sure that we had this opportunity we went in to where they had stored the instruments and we found that they had kept everything that they had used in the 1960s and early •70s: 48 cellos; 15 string basses; and all of the sheet music everything was in there!

At some point, a steam pipe had burst in a nearby storage room and these instruments were all in those old cloth cases. With the steam, it was like the cases were all shrink-wrapped around the instruments. Yes, there were a few strings that were broken and we had the occasional bridge we had to fix, but almost everything was in great condition. So thinking about starting up an orchestra, we already had a great inventory of instruments ready to go. That was in the summer of 1995, and so for the 1995-96 school year, we started the orchestra program with all of the fifth graders in the district.

SBO: How did you go about introducing the concept of playing classical music to those students?
MB: We used fiddle music. Waterford School District has a very diverse population. We’re not far from Pontiac, Michigan, and in the •30s and •40s, a lot of families moved up from Kentucky and Tennessee to work in the General Motors plant. Many of these families have these ties to bluegrass areas, and fiddle was a good introduction. We’d put the instruments in their hands just to start getting them to make sounds.

The other thing that we did was we brought in quartets and other ensembles from area high schools and even a few professional groups to show the kids just what could be done. But a lot of it came back to the fiddle, which, for almost half these kids, was already in their blood.

SBO: And how did that progress through the years?
MB: We started with fifth grade that year, and added a grade to the program every year, until we finally had ninth graders bringing orchestra to the high school, in 1999-2000. As we taught the basics, we used a lot of folk tunes, and we would introduce recognizable classical pieces, as much as possible. It worked to help instill basic skills and whet the students’ appetite with the genre. I was also out in the public as much as possible. By the time we had high school students, we took our fiddle students to the Memorial Day Parade. One of our student’s families had a friend who owned a big flatbed tractor trailer. We put 20 students up on there, rigged a sound system and put the orchestra in the parade for seven years!

SBO: That must have put the orchestra in the public’s eye!
MB: Exactly. It’s about finding those opportunities to make sure we continue to stay in the spotlight. As we continued that tradition of the parade, pretty soon it got to be the violins and violas walking beside the truck using wireless microphones, and up on the truck were the cellos and the basses because you just can’t fit 50 kids on one truck!

Once we were ready to start to participate in district festivals and encourage the kids to start taking private lessons, we knew we were heading where we wanted to go.

When I was teaching fifth grade, one of the things I did was that when my students learned a piece, even if it was just 8 or 16 measures long, I’d take them down to the first- and second-grade classrooms and we would perform for the younger students. It wasn’t a big deal, we would just show up, play for a minute or two, and then we were out of there. I used to do a lot of that so that by the time the kids reached fifth grade, they would already have a decent idea of what orchestra is all about. I think that helps a lot. The school district has also been very supportive.

Once we had the high school students involved, we began playing at festival and getting better ratings, and we also started traveling with the students. In our orchestra model, we have a ninth-grade ensemble, we have an upper classmen ensemble, and then we have a chamber orchestra. It follows the model of a wind ensemble, where the top group is a small group of really good players, so they can do some really cool things. Placement in the high school groups is all audition-based.

There are two high schools in Waterford. The other one started with the intro group and tried to build, and I started with the middle group. I think starting with a full orchestra works better because we were able to get more people involved. I actually pushed for symphony orchestra almost right away. I wanted to get all of the winds involved, and really start to explore the possibilities of what we could do. Within a year, I had some really great players, and I was concerned about losing them because they were exceeding the level of the overall program, so my supervisor suggested we put the chamber orchestra together. That first year, it met before school. And everyone from the chamber orchestra had to be in the symphony orchestra, as well.

SBO: As if it’s not enough to have students playing obscure music they probably won’t hear on the radio, you have them coming in to school an hour early, as well?
MB: Yes! [laughs] These were the kids taking private lessons, the ones with a real investment in the program, so they were thrilled to have the opportunity.

We pulled some really challenging music and quickly they became the showcase group that I brought to the elementary schools and board meetings. Again, I was constantly looking for those opportunities to be out in the community shouting, “Look at what we’re doing! Look at what we’re doing!”

Waterford Kettering High School Orchestras at a Glance

Location: 2800 Kettering Drive, Waterford, Michigan
On the Web:
www.waterford.k12.mi.us/kettering/orchestra/

Ensembles

Sinfonia 34 string players,18 wind/percussion players; 52 total members.
Note: The string section of this ensemble divides into two string chamber orchestras. Chamber Orchestra:16 players; Chamber Academy Orchestra: 18 players.

Symphony Orchestra Primarily upper classmen.

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