By Jo Mathis
AAPS News Editor
When Scarlett Middle School music teacher Cory Bergman sits down at the choir room piano, it’s apparent that many before him have done the same thing.
One of the piano’s wheels is broken, some of the strings are damaged, and there are all those chips and knicks.
“Getting these pianos tuned and repaired only does so much when they’re this old and in need of repair,” says Bergman.
If voters approve the May 5 bond proposal, Ann Arbor Public Schools will sell $33 million worth of bonds to fund capital improvements. The district would spend $3 million of that $33 million on performing arts upgrades for all music classes.
Fine Arts Coordinator Robin Bailey says the need is obvious.
“Some of our performing arts auditoriums are way behind as far as current systems, electronic, digital, curtains on old systems, etcetera,” she says. “We also have a great need for replacing the pianos in our district. The last time we purchased the pianos for classroom use was well over 20 years ago, and they get daily use and moved around a lot. Many of them have just outlived their capacity to be functional. Many of our district piano tuners have let me know it’s costing more to upkeep the pianos than to purchase new ones.”
Ann Arbor is unique in the fact that it offers every fifth grade student the use of an instrument free of charge.
“We pride ourselves in Ann Arbor on being able to offer every student an instrument in fifth grade so that they can learn to play,” says Bailey. “It becomes a choice for them in middle and high school to take it as an elective, but we still provide an instrument for any student in the district who has a need for an instrument.”
Throughout their music education at AAPS, instruments are provided for families with financial need. But because of increased enrollment, the district is nearing the point where that may become impossible.
“So we need to supplement our inventory, as well as instruments that are used on a daily basis year after year,” Bailey says. “No matter how well we maintain them, they get old and tired and aren’t usable on a daily basis anymore.”
The inventory is used as long as possible, with damaged instruments that are no longer useable ending up in the warehouse to be salvaged for parts.
Band director Doug Horn says there’s a great need for new instruments because many of the ones in use now are 30 and 40 years old, and the life expectancy is slightly more than 20.
“Thirty and 40 different kids have learned on them, but they’ve taken a beating,” says Horn. “We were able to buy some new instruments a few years ago with the millage, but sadly, when you pass out the instruments at the beginning of the year, it happens that one kid gets a newer looking and newer playing instrument, and the next kid gets one that’s kind of beat up and 40 years old.”
Horn works on instruments that can be repaired, using parts from other old instruments in the warehouse.
“We try to keep patching up the soldiers and putting them back into battle,” he says. “It would be a real fabulous thing to have almost all new instruments for our kids.”
What would he say to those who suggest parents should purchase instruments for their fifth graders?
“We have many, many kids who can’t afford instruments,” he says. “Their parents are having a hard enough time just putting food on the table.”
Instruments such as cellos, basses, baritones, tubas, trombones and bassoons are not only costly, but their size makes them challenging for students to transport them back and forth for home practice. So the district often supplies a practice instrument for home use.
Extensive brain research proves the benefits of music education in a child’s life, Bailey points out.
“We want to educate the whole child,” she says, “and we want them to experience all that interests them and their passion is about, and giving kids an experience in the arts allows that creative problem-solving experience they don’t get in other places.”