Arlene Burney’s Passion for Music, Education, and Her Casa Grande Gauchos

Mike Lawson • Archives • June 1, 2009

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SBO: Wow, that’s a workload! How long have you been at Casa Grande High School?
AB: This is the end of my 14th year at Casa Grande. Four years ago I was lucky enough to have enough students to hire another teacher to help me, Sean Millard. This year we team teach concert and freshmen band, and he does the J.V. Jazz Band and I do the Varsity Jazz Band. I also have a color guard class. Next year things will be different because of budget cuts. Sean also teaches one music appreciation class this year and will be teaching two music appreciation classes next year. Before Casa I taught one year at Illinois State University in Bloomington. Before that I taught for four years in Shreveport, Louisiana; five years in Akko and Jerusalem, Israel; and I started my career teaching music in an elementary school in Santa Cruz, California in 1976. In addition to teaching at Casa Grande, I work with a community band The Petaluma Community Band, which meets on Monday evenings all throughout the school year and is run by me and my husband, Jimmie Howard Reynolds, who taught music for many years at several colleges and universities. The band has about 50 players, some students from our school, but mostly community members and quite a few Casa Grande alumni members.

SBO: I’m very interested to hear about your teaching experience in Israel, but before we get to that, I have to ask how you manage all of this. You must have incredible time management skills.
AB: Well it isn’t easy. My husband is retired and, fortunately, he has a lot of patience. My son is now home from college and has been very helpful with band stuff and cooking dinner. But, really if you want a normal life, this is not the career to choose.

SBO: It sounds like you have moved around quite a bit. How did you end up teaching in Israel?
AB: When I was teaching elementary in Santa Cruz, I was laid off. I decided to grab a backpack and my French horn and travel around Europe, which I did for 10 months. I had a cousin who lived in Israel, so I went to stay with her. I returned to Santa Cruz and actually got my teaching job back, but I really missed Israel. I got this strange letter in the mail that said, “We are looking for a music teacher to teach in a poor community in Israel.” So I went. I ended up in a small town called Akko, in an apartment with no heat or hot water. I taught a junior high band and private lessons during the day. In the evening I worked at the municipality band house with the ensemble there. While I was there, they sent over a band director from Iowa State University to run the national youth band. That director was Jimmie, my eventual husband; that’s how we met. We ended up in Jerusalem, working with a junior high and high school bands, and we also had a community band. I taught music during the day in a poor community, which was funded by a wealthy family from Baltimore, Maryland. They paid my salary and bought all of the instruments for the students.

SBO: So when did you move back to the U.S. and why?
AB: I became pregnant, and my son was born in Israel. But, that was in 1985, and the economy was very bad in Israel. Also, I didn’t want my son to be in the army there. We thought it was best to just come back here. We spent a couple of months at my parent’s house, which was not good. Then we went to Shreveport, Louisiana for four years, then to Illinois, where I complete my education at the University of Illinois, and finally, back to California.

SBO: That’s quite a journey. Having done so much traveling yourself, how do you manage band travel and, more specifically, raise funds?
AB: We have a couple of options for fundraising. First, our band program is supported by our booster organization, Eastside Friends of Music, which makes most of its money from Bingo games on Saturday evenings. Some of the donated money from these games goes to our program to offset bus costs. Second, we are fortunate to have a fireworks booth for a few days before the 4th of July which helps raise money for travel. Third, our student band council comes up with various fundraisers for the students who cannot afford to pay for the trips from their own money or their parents’ money. We used to sell candy on campus, but that is now forbidden by our state it is fattening and unhealthy. We put on a Jazz Dinner Dance every year and the jazz students raise quite a bit of money from that evening. The money goes towards their travel costs.

SBO: What has been the most difficult challenge in terms of travel?
AB: Lately it has been the poor economy. Many families do not have the money to help their kids go on a trip if they have just lost their job or have taken a huge pay cut. Second, California is far away from the rest of the country, and it has become prohibitively expensive to fly to another state. Third, our groups are so large, and we hate to exclude one band (freshmen), so our choices are limited. Also, can you imagine going through security with 150 plus students with instruments and suitcases? Nightmare!

SBO: When I went to the Gaucho’s Web site, I saw that the band has its own commercial-looking travel-page. How does that site work?
AB: If we use the Web site,, we get a certain percentage off our next trip. There is an initial fee of $450 to set up your own site, with your own logo, but then you can start earning credit.

SBO: How has it worked for band travel?
AB: YTB Travel will make arrangements for you, or you can use the Web site to make your own travel arrangements, just like Travelocity or Orbitz. Anyone can use it, so we try to get band parents, friends, and family to use the site. After a certain amount of business from the band, it is possible to get large discounts. We are not there yet. But, it is easy to use and will eventually save the band money on travel.

SBO: Do your ensembles regularly participate in festivals?
AB: Yes, many. Almost every year we go to the CMEA Area I band festival. Our Symphonic band has earned straight superior ratings for the past 14 years, and our two other concert bands have earned a mixture of superior and high excellent ratings. We have also participated in the Music Heritage Festivals and have earned similar ratings from those competitions. Our top students have auditioned and made the Sonoma County Honor Band, the Nor-Cal Honor Band, and the California All-State Honor Band. We also have select students who participate in the solo and ensemble festivals each year. Our two jazz bands usually go to one to three festivals a year and have done very well at these festivals too.

Casa Grande Gaucho Bands at a Glance

Location: 333 Casa Grande Road Petaluma, Calif.
On the Web:
Students at Casa Grande High School: 1886
Students in the Music Program: 190

Symphonic Band
Concert Band
Freshmen Band
Junior Varsity
Varsity Jazz
Color Guard

SBO: How do you go about choosing a festival?
AB: The CMEA festivals are local and we usually always go to those for concert and jazz bands. The Music Heritage Festival is one of many festival groups that run a good festival in conjunction with Disneyland or some other fun attraction.

SBO: Have you been invited to festivals, applied for them, or both?
AB: Both. We have been invited to many more festivals than we can possibly afford to go to, or have the time to go to. For years we have been invited to the Music Heritage Festival of Gold, which is only for superior bands, but we could never afford the cost of flying to New York or Chicago. Also, we would have to take only our top band, and the other 120 students wouldn’t get a trip it is a matter of priorities and money.

SBO: I know California has taken quite a hit in this economic crisis. What impact has it had on education? Has your district had any budget cuts?
AB: The state of California is about to cut out the state of California; we are just about to sink into the ocean, [laughs] I’m not kidding! A huge amount of money, once earmarked for education, has been cut, and it isn’t over yet. We have had so many foreclosures and so many jobs lost. The state is going broker by the day. Cuts have to be made somewhere and that has been in healthcare and education. In California, schools have to show the state that they have enough liquidity to go three years out. The government has been scrambling to figure how to handle school budgets. Their answer has been to cut budgets in all districts, raise class sizes, layoff teachers, and now they are talking about shortening the school year. And we are still stuck with the federal requirement of No Child Left Behind, which means having to show the same results with less time. They are also going to begin to cut all the electives. You cannot cut an English class; everyone needs to take English. Next year we have roughly the same number of students signed up and divided by the higher class size number of 32 and came out with 9.3 sections, but were given only seven sections. After much panic, the school site council bought us another section, but then we had to pay over $15,000 from our booster money to buy our ninth section. We are certainly hoping this will not become a precedent. But, more cuts are expected in August.

SBO: So where does this leave music education in California?
AB: Unfortunately, nothing in California is unified, and it leaves it hanging out there. If one district has more money than another and can spend it on a music program, they will have more music than others. In our district, we have one elementary school with one music teacher and the six other elementary schools have no music at all, which means the kids are not getting an introduction to music. The east side of town is the wealthiest part of town, and they have an after school music program because the parents are able to pay for it. So now students are beginning band in seventh grade when it used to be fourth or fifth grade. My co-director and I have just started an after school band program for the kids in the elementary schools that don’t have music.

SBO: Do you get your students involved in lobbying for music?
AB: Yes, but going to our own school board will not help. Our financial crisis is statewide, and we have a state and federal problem that a few music students just cannot fix. Music is not the only area being cut; all electives have taken a hit and many regular classes were increased in size. Our district teachers voted to give up two days of paid in-service to save some jobs, but that was a drop in the bucket.

Arlene Burney's Passion for Music, Education, and Her Casa Grande GauchosSBO: Has the federal stimulus helped in any way?
AB: Not yet. Our district pays for most of our health care costs. 80-85 percent of our teachers and staff are enrolled in Kaiser Permanente, and they just raised rates by 34 percent. Kaiser’s agreement with our district was not to raise rates more than 18 percent per year, so the district will have greatly increased medical costs for a number of years to come. I’m pretty sure that all the federal stimulus money will go to paying for the increased medical costs. There won’t be money left over for programs.

SBO: What advice would you give to a band director just beginning their career?
AB: This is a really rough field to get into right now. I am seeing directors in their 30s getting laid off because they don’t have as much experience as others. If you love music and love teaching, you should do it because it is so rewarding. If you’re doing it for the money, forget it. If you’re not willing to put your heart and soul into it, you will never have a good program, and you will be frustrated. You really have to have a passion for it.

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