'Performance opportunity': Young musicians get Blue Band tutoring

Nathan Polo, 11, entered the Penn State Blue Band building Wednesday morning with his trombone case in hand.

He unlatched the case, took out his brass instrument and sat in his designated practice chair, then began to play an excerpt from John Edmondson’s “Anasazi.”

At the head of the room stood Penn State student conductor Jessie Scrudders, a senior studying music education with an emphasis in the French horn. She orchestrated the piece that Nathan was performing.

While some kids wanted to play their instruments as loud as possible, Nathan said that Penn State music students have taught them different techniques to make the most of the sound.

“They help us out a lot,” Nathan said. “They teach a bunch of parts of the songs and how we should play them properly. Sometimes you have to play your trombone a little low so you can hear the percussion in the background.”

Nathan was among 184 fifth-graders from nine elementary schools in the Centre Region who are a part of three ensembles. Local fifth-graders and Penn State music education students have teamed up for a mutually beneficial music education program and concert that will be held next month.

Roy Schaeffer, instrumental music teacher at Gray’s Woods and Park Forest elementary schools, started the program seven years ago.

It started with a conversation between him and Linda Thornton, a Penn State music education professor. Schaeffer was finishing his master’s degree, and Thornton was his adviser.

“It was a performance opportunity for my students,” he said. “Music students at Penn State had no real-world experience, and this was a chance to involve kids on this side of music across the district and expose college students to real, live 10-year-olds with only a year of playing experience.”

The first year, the practices were held at Gray’s Woods Elementary with students from Gray’s Woods and Park Forest. The program then included Radio Park Elementary. By the third year, it included all State College Area School District elementary schools and Our Lady of Victory Catholic School.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to be accepted,” Schaeffer said. “How are the parents going to react? I was a little leery myself, but it turned out to be something really fantastic.”

“She gets a chance to play in a real band setting, and it challenges her,” said Nancy Jacobs, whose daughter, Grace, 10, played the trumpet with the group, a rarity for the home-schooler. “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

The six Wednesdays leading up to the concert, parents drop off their children to the Blue Band building for early morning practice. Some of the time runs into regular class schedules, but teachers such as Sandy Muller at Our Lady of Victory Catholic School said that teachers rearrange the beginning of class to adapt to the morning band practice.

“It’s just the most positive and rewarding experience for these kids,” Muller said.

Muller is the band director at OLV, but also has three daughters — one of whom is in the band. Her oldest daughter, Stephanie Muller, a Park Forest Middle School student, was in the program about four years ago. Gray’s Woods Elementary school student Sydney Muller plays the trumpet in the band and little sister, Kelsey Muller, 6, is hoping to also play the trumpet in the next few years.

There are two bands and one orchestra that will do a total of 10 selections. Each of the eight Penn State music students are conducting one song for the upcoming concert, and Penn State professors will conduct two other songs.

“It’s something that just benefits both programs and everyone involved,” Schaeffer said. “The kids are having fun in a different setting than they’re used to, and the music majors are able to teach in a real setting like this. It’s something that shows Penn State and the community’s interaction with each other.”

The program is paid for through volunteer work and fundraisers, Schaeffer said.