Young students join in the band

They have rhythm - at age 11, who could ask for anything more?

Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The music teacher tells the children to turn to the song "Hard Rock Blues."

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She gives brief instruction; she raises her hands and the kids start to play. The music carries from the room into the hall and it sounds ... well - let's cut them some slack.

The blues aren't exactly meant to be played at 7:20 a.m., and the first-chair clarinet is only 11 years old.

Moments later, after a clapping exercise to help the students pick up the rhythm of the piece, they try it again from the top. It's getting better.

"Wow. I could understand the song," says instructor Mela O'Brian. "We're making progress here."

The students smile and slip down into their seats.

Since early in the school year, about 40 students at Glacier Valley Elementary have woken up twice a week at dawn to learn how to play classical instruments.

A $4,500 matching grant from the Alaska State Council on the Arts helped finance the instruments and part of the teachers' compensation.

When O'Brian and fellow teacher Lorrie Heagy say they are blown away by the kids, they mean it in the most complimentary way.

"We've just been amazed by their dedication and their willingness to come at such an early hour of the day," said Heagy.

"They really have a love for what they are doing," O'Brian said.

The kids seem fearless. Many of them take on instruments half as big as they are.

When they're playing, you can see the smiles in their eyes and the intensity in their faces.

One young musician broke his arm after school but wasn't deterred from practice. O'Brian placed E.J. "The Jingle Man" Samonte in the percussion section.

"He really does put the icing on the cake," O'Brian said.

In addition to teaching the children how to play, O'Brian gives instruction in the basics of reading and the "culture of music," or how to behave when you're playing music with others.

"We're not just handing them an instrument and saying, 'Try to make a noise out of it,'" O'Brian said.

They're learning more than just music, Heagy said. One of the most important things is the value of hard work and practice.

"That's one thing we want to instill in our students: You can always make something better," she said. "In order to get better at anything, you have to focus and practice."

"They're learning how to listen to something and give themselves feedback," O'Brian said.

The most popular instrument in the band, by far, is the trumpet.

Renato Lumba, 11, one of the trumpet players, likes his instrument because he digs that tone.

"It has this loud, deep noise," he said. "In the beginning, I couldn't blow good, but in a couple of weeks, I got better."

When the kids first started, "They couldn't play a note," O'Brian said. "But by October, everybody was saying, 'This is cool,'"

• Will Morris can be reached at

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