Finding Resources In Urban Denver: Priscilla Rahn Earns Mr. Holland’s Opus Grant for Middle Schoolers

Mike Lawson • Features • July 15, 2020

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Middle school music teacher Priscilla Rahn has practical tips for educators seeking resources for their students. Just a few ideas include approaching craigslist sellers and suggesting they donate instruments in exchange for a tax deduction, borrowing and loaning instruments between schools, and “applying for everything.”

“There are so many grants out there, and when I find out about them, I always tell other music teachers,” Rahn says. “That’s an important point: Don’t hoard your resources. Don’t be selfish. Whatever I’m blessed with, I talk about it: ‘Here’s a grant I got. It’s a thousand dollars.’ You can buy a lot of sheet music or reeds with a thousand dollars.”

Rahn is uniquely suited to make due with less; she grew up in a household where means were limited but studying music was a priority. She is used to thinking creatively to acquire what her students need, not having things handed to her. So, she was pretty blown away when she learned that her band and orchestra program at Hamilton Middle—a Title 1 school in southeast Denver—was chosen to receive a substantial gift from the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. Thanks to funds donated by the Tedeschi Trucks band, Rahn’s school is set to receive more than $36,000 worth of brand-new brass and strings instruments from Eastman Music.

Before Colorado’s schools closed to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, SBO talked to Rahn about her career and how the generous grant will benefit her students. Here’s hoping the kids can get their hands on those new instruments soon!

What were your early experiences learning music?

It started with my family. My dad was the drum major in band when he was in high school, and my grandfather owned a nightclub, so my dad also grew up playing piano in the nightclub. My mom is from Seoul, Korea. During the War she was orphaned and she started taking dance classes with other girls in the orphanage; she became involved in the arts and music through dance.

I started playing piano when I was six, and then in fourth grade, I started playing flute in the band. I played from fourth grade all the way through college. I was a marching band geek and I played piano at church. In college, I started out majoring in piano performance, but I changed to education. I also learned to play violin in college.

This was important, though: My introduction to band came when the high school band director did the petting zoo at my elementary school. He showed off all of the instruments, and when he said, “This is a trumpet, and this is a trumpet mouthpiece.”

He made a buzz and said, “Who would like to come up and do a buzz?” I raised my hand and he called me up, and I was able to create a great buzz. He said, “You would be a great trumpet player,” and I wanted to play trumpet. But my dad was in the military and we moved to Korea after that, and the band director at my new school didn’t have any more trumpets—just the flute, so I was stuck playing flute. How many kids are in that same situation where they don’t have access to the instrument they want to play? A lot. I told myself that if I could ever do anything in music, it would be to find a way to give kids their first choice.

When did you know you wanted to become a music educator?

It was when I went to junior college in Killeen, Texas. I had an amazing music teacher who was Hungarian. She and her husband were professors at the Liszt Academy in Budapest and they escaped communism to come to the U.S. Her name was Adel Galanffy, and she was that one teacher who really inspired me.

After junior college, I transferred to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, and that’s when I started to learn the violin. Orchestra was really tough because I had the least amount of playing experience of all the students, but it was a dream of mine to learn a string instrument. I was taking private piano, voice, flute, and violin, and playing in band and orchestra, and singing in choir! I was that person who took everything.

How did you end up in Colorado?

After college, my first teaching job was elementary general music in the Houston area, and then some friends convinced me to move to Denver. That’s where I got my first high school band job. I always imagined I was going to be a high school marching band director because I loved marching band so much. All I knew was the rigor and prestige of Texas marching bands. Teaching in Colorado was the first time I saw that not every high school marching band was like Texas. There was a lot of poverty and not the same level of investment in music education.

Why do you love marching band so much?

So many reasons: It’s super fun. It builds community. It’s competitive, so it’s exhilarating. It develops a sense of pride, and it is so physically draining, which makes it satisfying. You put everything out there on the field and you’re exhausted but so proud of the work. I just celebrated my high school reunion, and all the band geeks got together. We’re still friends to this day. In high school we didn’t have time to get into trouble because we were too busy practicing.

You came to Denver to teach high school and be involved in marching band, but now you’re at a middle school. Was that a deliberate choice?

I actually left high school to become a principal for years, and then came back and was asked to be a music teacher evaluator for a couple of years. When I decided to go back into the classroom, it was a matter of looking for a school that would be the right fit for me. I was asked by a colleague to apply for this job at the middle school, and it’s been amazing.

Here, I have a great principal and a great program teaching band and orchestra. It’s one of the last surviving comprehensive middle school music programs. We’re losing music programs in our district, so I am always fighting to keep it thriving.

How is your program fixed for financial resources?

Just as an example, I started this year needing $5,500 in instrument repair, but I only have a $1,500 budget for repairs for the year. I did have a parent donate $500, and my principal was able to find another $500, but I still have instruments sitting at the music store waiting for the next fiscal year, when I’ll get another $1,500 and I can get more out of the repair shop. Thank God for the Mr. Holland’s Opus grant!

Yes, how did that happen?

This is a cool story, and it starts with Dave Koz, the jazz saxophonist. He has a good friend named Mitchel Moore, who founded HOLA, which stands for Heart of L.A. They provide a place for kids in L.A. to go after school. Students can take music classes, art classes, all sorts of things. Mitchel was talking to Dave about a student in Cuba, I think—a child prodigy whose dream it was to own a tenor sax. Mitchel said, “I really want to get a tenor sax to this kid.” And Dave Koz said, “You should talk to my friend Darren Rahn, who lives in Denver.”

Darren is my husband, and he’s a multi-Grammy-nominated saxophonist and producer. He’s sponsored by P.Mauriat Saxophones, and that’s why Dave Koz put Mitchel in contact with Darren. When Mitchel described to my husband what he’s been doing with HOLA, Darren said, “That’s amazing work you’re doing. There’s such a need. My wife is a public school band teacher in inner-city Denver, and they have been struggling to get instruments.” They were sharing their stories.

Well, though Mitchel, what Darren said ended up getting back to Felice Mancini, CEO of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. She and Mitchel were talking and she said to Mitchel, “We have all this money in Colorado and we’re looking for a school that needs it.” Mitchel said, “Oh my gosh, I just talked to Darren Rahn. His wife is a music teacher. Let me connect you.” That’s when I got an email from the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, asking me about the demographics of the school, because they only give grants to low-income, inner-city schools.

Apparently, the Tedeschi Trucks band had performed at Red Rocks and donated the proceeds from their concert to the foundation; the money was earmarked for a Colorado school music program. I first heard from them in the fall of 2019. I had to do an application and send videos of me teaching, and then pictures of my classroom and my storage. My guess is, if they give instruments, they want to make sure they’ll be safe and taken care of for years to come. It’s important to mention, though, that grants from the Mister Holland’s Opus Foundation are by invitation only. 

Do you have other tips for educators trying to obtain resources for their programs?

Stay positive. Your work can be draining, but exude your love for what you do. That’s one reason I’m perfect for this community. I was that kid whose parents didn’t have a lot of money and didn’t have a lot of choices, so I don’t want any child to feel like they couldn’t get their first choice.

Second, get your kids out there in the public. Post on social media. Look for opportunities for them to play in public, even if it’s just one song. I’m one of the first people to get a call to perform for the superintendent’s luncheon or a district event, and then we’re in the room with donors—people who want to give back to the schools.

The third thing is, build relationships with people in the music industry. Go to conferences and ask people, “How can I promote your product? Let’s work together.” Build partnerships with these companies, because they’re trying to grow as well.

Also, remember that you don’t get anything if you don’t ask. Put your needs in the school newsletter: Do you have a violin in your basement that you haven’t used since high school? So many people have instruments that are just collecting dust. Our students need us to fight for our programs and be proactive.

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