SHELDON — Sheldon High School instrumental music director Cliff St. Clair swore he would never lead a marching band. For one thing, the high-stepping style of many conventional marching bands was fun to watch, but inevitably, “the music suffered,” he said.
“My trumpet playing chops would be beat up by the time I was done marching,” St. Clair said, recalling his experience as a student when the exuberant style prevailed.
However, once St. Clair discovered “a new way to march” – less flashy, more music-focused – he came to appreciate something unexpected about the role of a marching band – something that went beyond considerations like musicality and precision.
“I came to appreciate the marching band’s value to the community,” he said. Clair said.
The important relationship between the music program at the Sheldon School District and its supporting community is recognized in a recent award received by the district, which was among six Iowa communities named to this year’s list of Best Communities for Music Education by the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation.
The award recognizes the efforts of teachers, students, parents, administrators and community leaders who support music programs as part of a well-rounded education for all children.
Brandon Lenderink, vocal music director for Sheldon students in grades 7-12, said it takes a community to support music education.
“When our program has a big need for things, the community has been good about rallying behind that,” Lenderink said.
Among recent purchases, “the marching band has a beautiful new sound system that was paid for from donations from the community,” he added.
Without community buy-in, arts programs fail to thrive, Lenderink said.
“Sheldon has a really strong tradition musically, and I think the strength of the music program is a really good indicator of the support that it gets,” Lenderink said. “If people don’t support something, that thing doesn’t do well.”
Speaking to the health of the district’s music program, Sheldon School District superintendent Cory Myer said noted the high school jazz choir is a perennial state title contender.
Lenderink, too, pointed to performance in competitions as one measure of the music program’s health.
“Our ensembles have been to state championships eight different times now,” Lenderink said, “and they continue to perform at the highest levels and win awards.”
He cited the Sheldon High School Summer Theater program, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and concludes each season with a musical, as another example of the community’s support of arts programs in schools, which share a close affinity and together create a common culture.
“Without community support, those things don’t happen at the level they’re happening here,” Lenderink said.
The Sheldon music program enjoys high participation levels among students, one of the measures employed by the NAMM Foundation to select award recipients, according to Myer. This year, there were around 60 students in concert band and another 60-plus in marching band and color guard. More than 100 students participated in either concert choir or mixed choir, with a roughly even split between the two.
Sheldon students begin their music education in kindergarten, and the band is introduced as an option in fifth grade. Choir becomes optional in seventh grade.
Aside from dedicated teachers and supportive administrators, St. Clair said Sheldon’s music education program benefits from the loyal work of the Sheldon Music Boosters Club, which provides an external source of funding through a variety of fundraising events each year.
“From our perspective, as band and choir directors, our community connection is through our music boosters – and we have really supportive boosters, really supportive parents,” St. Clair said.
Tricia Dagel, outgoing president of the Sheldon Music Boosters Club, said the organization comes alongside the school to support music education.
“The boosters’ mission is to enhance and support the music program at the Sheldon schools,” Dagel said.
The club, which operates according to bylaws and has a board of eight voting officers, helps organize and provide meals for band and choir trips, helps cover travel expenses for various competitions and provides funds for purchases that run the gamut from music stands to large instruments .
“We get creative,” Dagel said. “We’re always looking for new ways to fundraise.”
Along with selling annual discount cards, which feature coupons and special deals from a variety of Sheldon businesses, the club does a “flamingo flocking” fundraiser, which involves filling a yard with plastic flamingos that can be relocated to a yard of the resident’s choosing, for a price.
Dagel became active in the music boosters once her children started to get involved in band and choir. Her youngest daughter, Bradi, graduated this spring, and her youngest son, Noah, will be a senior next year. This March, her son traveled with the Sheldon jazz choir, Vocal Fusion, to compete in the 2022 Iowa Vocal Jazz Championships, where the choir finished fourth in Class 3A.
Dagel has seen firsthand the way students benefit from a musical education.
“Overall, it helps children excel in academics, and their experience performing helps them build confidence in themselves,” she said.
Dagel has watched her children blossom with their involvement in music and the fine arts in the Sheldon schools.
“My daughter just graduated, but when she started as a freshman, she was shy,” she said. “If you talked to her today, you would never guess that.”
Among the large purchases enabled by donations from the boosters over the years, the concert band was able to buy a $ 17,000 set of timpani. The club also helps pay for the marching band field show in the fall and funds the hiring of a professional choreographer for the show choir’s competition season each year.
Dagel emphasized that any purchase is a fair game – the boosters are there to meet whatever need comes up, big or small. One major purchase she hopes the club will help to fund soon is a new stand for the marching band’s drum major, who perches above the field to direct the band during halftime at football games and for field competitions.
“It’s a spendy item, but we need it for safety,” she said.
Her daughter just completed her tenure as drum major, and Dagel has assessed the condition of the stand with the eyes of a watching parent and deemed it wanting.
“Many of these are things that a typical band program couldn’t afford if we didn’t have support from the boosters,” St. Clair said.
Along with a supportive community, Myer said music education in the Sheldon schools benefits from excellent instruction, one of the criteria used by the NAMM Foundation to determine award recipients.
Along with its veteran teachers, there are changes afoot in the Sheldon music program, and Myer said the district is excited to bring a new middle school instrumental music instructor on board next year.
This fall, Peter Carlson, formerly the instrumental music director at Sibley-Ocheyedan High School in Sibley, will begin leading the band program at Sheldon Middle School. Jeana Larson left the position to begin a new role at Bishop Heelan Catholic High School in Sioux City next school year.
“Peter Carlson is a highly regarded band instructor who has had tremendous success up in Sibley,” Myer said. “He’ll be joining us in the fall, and with Cliff and Peter together, our band will have one of the top duos in the entire state.”
St. Clair, who has been directing the high school band program since 2001, was elected to serve as the Iowa Bandmasters Association president-elect for the 2022-23 school year and will go on to serve as president during the 2023-24 school year. Larson completed her term as IBA president this year.
According to Myer, the success of Sheldon’s music program reflects a partnership between educators and the greater community.
“This award is meaningful because it reflects the commitment we have to music education in our school and community. We take great pride in our music and fine arts programs, ”Myer said.
Lenderink said the benefits of music education are hard to quantify, but they are significant.
“There are hundreds of studies that show that students who participate in music do better in everything else, too,” Lenderink said.
Music is also universal.
“We don’t know of a single culture that doesn’t have music,” Lenderink said. “Wherever there are humans, they are making music. It’s a part of the human experience that I want to encourage in our kids and teach them to do well. ”
Some Sheldon students, like sophomore Gabby Van Wyk, begin their musical education as soon as they can. She took up the trumpet in fifth grade and never looked back.
“I started right away, right when you could,” she said.
Her younger sister is following in her footsteps as a trumpet player.
Other students, like Jose Ruiz, come later to the Sheldon music program. A sophomore, Ruiz has only been playing in the band for a year. He plays the saxophone in the concert band, and he intends to join the jazz band next year, too.
“I chose the saxophone because it’s the only instrument that actually had some style to it,” Ruiz said.
His favorite styles of music to play on the saxophone have Latin American roots, and he lists cumbia and wapongo among his favorites.
Variety is built into Sheldon’s musical curriculum, Lenderink said, and students in the choir sing jazz and pop songs alongside texts written in the 1500s. Novice singers join students with years of experience to give voice to musical selections from across genres and cultures.
“It’s important that musically we meet kids where they’re at,” Lenderink said. “When I have a student that’s been accepted into the All-State Choir for multiple years, the work I do with that student is going to look a lot different than the work I do with the seventh-grader who has just joined choir and is in the middle of their voice change. ”
He said music is for everyone
“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re at. We can find music for you and get you started singing or playing an instrument, ”Lenderink said. “Everybody can do music, and we want to encourage that.”