Shortly after Kathryn Spangler started teaching music in an inner-city public middle school in Indianapolis, she started to hear a refrain: “We can't.”
It came from parents, other teachers, administrators and even, sometimes, students themselves.
“It was, 'We can't do that because you don't have the money, or we can't do that because we don't have a semi (for hauling equipment), or we don't have band boosters. Or it can't be done in that environment or with those kids,'” she said Saturday morning.
“That's my favorite – 'those kids.' Who are 'those kids?' Kids are kids.”
At the Indiana Music Education Association annual professional development conference that concluded Saturday at Grand Wayne Center, Spangler spoke at a seminar to show that a lot more can be done with students.
About 1,000 educators from around the state attended the conference, which began Thursday and included 17 student performances by some of the best instrumental and choral groups in the state, said Chris Taylor, conference chair.
It doesn't matter what students' environment might be like or what level their musical experience is – if teachers are willing to “think outside the box.”
Spangler recalled when she first came to Gamble Middle School, she found band instruments stacked in practice rooms and students who, it turned out, “hadn't played a single note in over a year.”
Tasked with creating a band, Spangler said it did seem daunting. But she realized that getting there might be about more than quarter-notes and time signatures. There, and later at then Shortridge Magnet High School in Indianapolis, she used the covert approach.
She went to the lunchroom and started chatting up kids – about their haircuts or their sneakers or a game. She stood outside the school exits at dismissal time and did the same thing.
When the time seemed right, she'd sneak in a “Hey, I bet you'd be good at playing trombone” or “How would you like to learn to play the drums?”
“What I learned was it's about building relationships,” she said. “As they started to trust,” the band became “like a second family,” she said. In a year, the band and orchestra went from seven students to about 250, Spangler said.
After that, she said, it became a matter of keeping students engaged. She experimented with the band style used by historically black colleges, full of up-tempo numbers and flashy moves and showmanship. A drum corps/drum line got started.
A jazz band came along, as did some work with African drumming, when someone interested in it became available to help out.
She started putting out snacks of bread and Nutella spread and kept grape Kool-Aid on hand. Students knew they could get a quick Friday afternoon haircut at a band barbershop.
In a short time, Spangler's students were doing the same thing other school bands were doing – winning competitions and even traveling to New York City to perform.
And she learned that that's not the only way to measure success. She said she now sees it in the students who still keep in touch with her, the ones who have gone on to play in college or have successful careers.
“It's a heart thing,” she said.