John Wernega: Quinton Township School Music Director

Mike Lawson • Features • December 5, 2019

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Citrus Grove was my neighborhood school in Miami, Florida. Remember when you walked to school and carried your books in your hands… with no backpack! It was THAT kind of school: elementary and junior high all in one place, with one classroom for each grade, first through ninth.

Elementary was first through sixth grade and junior high was roughly today’s middle school of seventh through ninth grades. Citrus Grove was a scant seven blocks from the very large Miami Senior High School, where the nationally-known Stingaree Band was directed by the legendary Al G. Wright.

There was one “sit down” band for all grades at Citrus Grove, with one band director who also was our individual instrumental music teacher. No small ensembles and no marching band. Even though she’s long gone, I believe that Alice Reid watches over every word I write for SBO just as she watched every note I played on my clarinet!

In Quinton, New Jersey, John Wernega is the Alice Reid! No staff, no high-tech band room crammed with computers and electronics. New Jersey’s school districts are generally small, as they are primarily organized on townships that date to colonial days. Many other communities across the country also have relatively small schools with similar limited staff and resources.

The Quinton school clearly states that every student is provided with opportunities to perform music on a yearly basis. While many of these opportunities are for vocal performances, there is an active instrumental offering as well. Instrumental, non-vocal opportunities are provided, which include playing tone chimes (handbells) in classes grades three through six. Individual students are moved into the junior bell choir when they demonstrate their ability to count rhythm. Those performing best in the Junior group can then advance to the bell choir as openings occur. A similar advancement opportunity exists to move into the highest-level bell choir, the Wildcat Tone Rangers. There is also an eighth grade (highest grade at Quinton) bell choir that performs at a special spring concert and also at their own graduation ceremony.

All students in grades three through eight have the opportunity to receive instrument lessons. In fact, a few second graders have taken advantage of this as well. Lessons are provided for trumpet, trombone, baritone, clarinet, saxophone, flute, and drums. All instrumental students then have the opportunity to play in solo concerts four times each school year.

The highest instrumental unit, the concert band, performs music that would be challenging to many high school bands. Students are moved into the concert band based on ability, especially based on their rhythm skills. One or two pieces are arranged to incorporate beginners into the concert band as an introduction to that level of performance.

Many parts are specifically (re)written or arranged to accommodate that specific student’s capability. Mr. Wernega, as he is known to his students, is all about method. He took his position as Quinton’s director of music immediately after graduating college.

“Quinton had cut their music program in 1993 and re-established it as a half-time position a year later,” he said. “The school had K through eighth grade, giving me a span of nine years to teach these kids. I knew I could accomplish a lot for these students over this time and took this half time position.”

Many of Wernega’s approaches are the result of trial and error initially utilizing the standard approaches: “I used to try doing three different level bands. I would have a beginner band, an intermediate band, and a concert band. Many of the beginner and most intermediate bands crashed and burned. When one approach does not work, I just create new approaches.”

Wernega’s new approach is to not even expose the least capable student musicians (beginners and intermediate) to the concert music until close to the actual concert. Instead, he concentrates on each individual student’s skills to advance them as much as possible prior to the concert and the concert preparation.

Wernega’s unique skills and capability allow him to create specific arrangements for students to both match and challenge their individual capabilities. This allows all the music students, regardless of capability, to play and gain experience and confidence as part of a solid ensemble.

In this way, all the students are both challenged but also comfortable in their performance. This is quite different from most school and community bands that select a concert repertoire that suits the middle level players, which doesn’t challenge their best players and may frustrate the less capable players.

The Quinton music program is all about basics, much like a music conservatory. Rhythm and pitch are where Wernega focuses all of his energy and efforts. The Quinton bell groups with their fixed pitch bells allows these students to focus totally on rhythm.

Rhythmolympics is an innovative “game” to establish the basics of music rhythm notation. It also exposes the entire student body to this very basic music necessity through a special school assembly final competition. This teaching unit occurs over a December-to-February term and involves the note subdividing: whole, half, quarter notes, and so on. Each student claps the rhythm that they’re presented. The level of difficulty varies by grade. The actual competition is to see how many presented patterns a student can clap in one minute. Finalists compete during a school-wide assembly in front of all third through eighth graders and their teachers. It is much like a spelling bee with rhythms rather than words. The individual winner gets ice cream tokens and his/her class share an ice cream party. Contrary to expectations, third and fourth graders have been overall winners! While being a small school imposes some limitations and challenges, it also provides an environment to address the individual needs of each student. At Quinton, Wernega had the flexibility to work with a very special student: Jacob Latt, who was born without sight. However, he was born with a natural sense of rhythm and perfect pitch. Pitch, the other basic music component, is also a Wernega focus. Fortunately, Jake’s parents became aware of his gifts and provided the support needed to develop these into usable expressions and skills. Jake told SBO that music “has enabled me to communicate my feelings.”

Jake was provided with a keyboard when he was only a year old, and given a guitar when he was two. These were far more than musical toys in his hands. His parents do have music in the house and family. His mother had played clarinet “poorly” in her school band, and other local family are active in church music. Jake became both the challenge and the reward for Warnega and the Quinton School music program. While a braille music notation does exist, the resources available are somewhat limited, and few music educators are trained to work with these students. Wernega and Jake devised their own music education approach. Rather than utilize braille music, they focused on recorded tracks of the music that Jake was to perform. Jake, like many blind individuals, has a heightened capability to memorize.

While the Quinton Township School normally feeds into the nearby Salem High School, most of the Quinton music students move on to the Communications High, a magnet school in nearby Monmouth. SBO reached out to their music department to explore their perception of the Quinton graduates.

“The Quinton students are highly prepared, demonstrate exceptional tonal memory, and actively listen and take instruction. This leads to excellence in performance.” Gunther continued, “this is due to John Wernega’s unique approach to music education at Quinton.”

What the Quinton experience may teach music educators is that there is no “one size fits all” structure or methodology. Innovation and experimentation may substitute for tried and true. Your small school music students may be the best thing to happen to your own development as a music educator!

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