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Despite challenges, Fredonia music program marches on

Taking note

Band director Andy Bennett talks about how the music program has adjusted.

The Fredonia Central School District music program has done something that most other school programs in Chautauqua County have unfortunately been unable to do: Stay afloat.

At a recent school board meeting, Fredonia band director Andy Bennett said that a lot of the districts in the area have seen a 20% to 40% dip in participation rate for band, with the most obvious factor being the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are most schools not holding in person classes, the regulations on band classes from the state have been especially strict, requiring 12 feet of distance between students who wish to practice.

Simply put, most other schools simply don’t have the means of supporting band practices, while maintaining the required social distance. And while it isn’t a perfect situation in Fredonia, Bennett feels very fortunate that his school has the resources to continue to make music, and is very understanding and sympathetic of the schools that don’t have those luxuries.

“That’s where we’ve had an edge in facilities,” Bennett said. “A school like Pine Valley has great teachers and a great community, but they don’t have band lessons because of their facilities. And there are a few other districts like that. If you’re in a situation like that, how do you maintain your numbers? If kids go a year without an activity, of course they’ll lose interest. We can fit 35 kids in the auditorium with 12 feet of distance. I have options, I have a gym, the auditorium, and other places. If I’m in a small district, I don’t have the facilities.”

Part of Bennett’s frustration and compassion to other schools comes from the regulations still in place by New York State, which seemingly haven’t been revisited since the pandemic started. With high school basketball now in the beginning of their season, the regulations for what bands are allowed to do has remained stagnant.

In this 2019 file photo, the Fredonia Jazz Band plays at a Fredonia school board meeting.

“This is coming to a head now that sports are allowed to happen,” Bennett said. “When the Department of Health came out with guidance for schools, they came up with the 12 feet number for social distancing. There have been a ton of studies on aerosol transmission since last March and none of them have recommended 12 feet, this is a number designed to be safe, but where we’ve seen modified guidance for other areas, they’ve resisted to change that for band, instruments, and singing.”

In spite of the regulations, Fredonia is making the best of their situation. Bennett said that 79% of the students at Fredonia, which includes kindergarten through 12th grade, are enrolled in some kind of music class, and Bennett is very grateful to see the programs still going strong and benefitting the students.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do,” Bennett said. “The fact we’ve maintained through these uncertain times has to do a lot with our community and student dedication. I’m proud of all the teachers who have worked incredibly hard to come up with creative and engaging lessons, and ways to come up with activities for students to take advantage of the situation.”

While all the big music festivals in the county and state have been canceled or moved to virtual, like the NYSSMA Solo Festival, the smaller concerts are still happening in the same vain. Bennett acknowledges that what the students are able to do this year can’t compare to a normal year, the Fredonia concert cycle has still gone on as scheduled, thanks to the help of virtual performances.

Another large reason Fredonia’s program has been sustainable is the school’s School Instrument Usage Program, which gives families access to instruments from the school for a very low cost. The program was blue-printed in 2015 and has been in effect since 2016, all while seeing a steady rise in students who have used it.

“We looked at the percentages of students getting free or reduced lunch, and what we noticed is that in grades K through two, there was a higher level of students who qualified,” Bennett said. “We always try to plan ahead for what’s coming, and thought if we kept that same percentage of kids, then that same percentage will have economic struggles trying to learn instruments. Students supposed to have free and equitable education, what does it mean to say that the only way to get band experience is to spend 1-200 dollars on instrument rental?”

When the program began in 2016-17, 20 students participated in the program. It was up to 58 students in 2019-20, and continues to grow from there.

“When we pitched it, there was fear kids would only try it for a year, which would still be considered a success,” Bennett said. “But we keep a good portion of those students who, without this program, wouldn’t be able to participate. In theory when we’ve done this for nine years, we’ll have a full cycle of kids using this program, and I’ll be curious to see what happens when we get to that point.”

While Bennett’s greatest wish would be to provide an instrument to anyone who’d want it, free of charge, he understands that would require a much larger budget than the school has. But he’s happy to see no kid in the district denied opportunity because of excessive cost, and for that, the kids have returned that dedication and kept the Fredonia music program going strong, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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