TOWNSEND -- Year after year, North Middlesex School District's music program has proven its excellence.
Nissitissit Middle School Band Director Kevin Tellier called it a model program, but it is also a unique one. At the high-school level, the classes act as transcript builders rather than extra-circular fluff. Without the foundations of the younger grades, the program wouldn't be what it is.
Consistently over 15 years, the chorus and bands have won golds or silvers in two state programs, the Massachusetts Instrumental and Choral Directors Association and the Massachusetts Association of Jazz Educators. At the University of New Hampshire Jazz Festival, they have consistently won a certificate of excellence over the same time period.
Groups in sixth to eighth grade have qualified to perform at Symphony Hall three times over. Large sections of concert groups are selected for the Tri-M Music Honor Society and North Middlesex Regional High School sends musicians to Central District, Massachusetts All-State and All-Eastern music festivals.
"District-wide we are exemplary because we work as a whole," Tellier said.
Beginning at Varnum, Squannacook and Ashby elementary facilities, fourth graders play to discover. By the time they've graduated onto Hawthorne Brook or Nissitissit, Tellier and Bridget Wilson, the Nissitissit chorus director, begin regimented practices in grade-five bands and choruses.
"Here it's one rehearsal per week, plus before
By sixth grade, students join the grade 6 to 8 concert band and chorus and have the opportunity to audition for jazz band, wind ensemble and select chorus, exploring beyond basic, classical styles into rock, Latin, swing, advanced voice selections and the beginnings of improvisation.
"Students work on becoming well rounded, whole musicians," Wilson said.
As students begin to approach eighth grade, high school music directors Jason Bielik and Michelle Blake talk to their prospective musicians for the coming years.
Each music teacher is an island, Bielik explained.
"We all communicate, but I am the only one who will be working with this specific age group with instruments," he said.
Still, he and Tellier monitor musicians as individuals, sharing learning styles and techniques that will work best for kids, tailoring their instruction.
In high school the classes take a more rigorous schedule: five days per week, Bielik holds classes for two different jazz ensembles and two different concert bands.
"We have two levels at once because, with only one group, one third would be in over their head and another third be bored, this allows kids to fit in where their educational needs are," he said.
Thanks to the help of the Guidance Department, Bielik said block scheduling is relatively easy. Band is taken just like a class, not an extra-curricular.
"It's intimidating getting a program of studies that is 50 pages long. Planning your life that young is daunting," he said.
According to Bielik and Blake, about four years ago guidance counselors sat down and gamed out different scenarios, quarter- or half-schedules that give them the students they need to fill an orchestra at appropriate times of year.
Extended learning opportunities, such as jazz band, marching band, winter percussion and women's choir, advanced voice ensemble and the spring musical also tack credits onto a given semester's earning.
"Because there is more competitive credit and weight given to extra-curriculars, students are getting a concrete, tangible reward from them," Bielik said.
Standalone piano classes have been gaining popularity. The high school boasts music labs with about 26 keyboards where students can learn to play.
"This is the first year that those classes have blossomed," Blake said of the more than 70 kids who took the class this year as first-time musicians.
That class attracts many first-timers, but also band and chorus members looking to branch out into other realms or, as Bielik added, kids who "just needed something to fit into their schedule."
"The curriculum there is held to the same excellence. The kids can get the benefits they would if they were taking music theory or instrumental performance," Tellier said.
Building this excellence hasn't been easy, Tellier says. Teachers, curriculum, guidance support and students' drive to succeed all need to fall into place.
"It takes a decade to build, but it can be destroyed in a year; it's very fragile," Tellier said.
Often, Blake adds, the place to cut budgets is in the younger music programs.
"We cannot have that. We have all our groups performing at their best, the highest levels one can expect," she said. "They are starting on a foundation. The kids excel because they are always coming from such a high level."
Superintendent Maureen Marshall said she has not gouged the Music Departments for those very reasons: the excellence those programs achieve and the unpopularity it would be met with. Furthermore, when Tellier was asked about any knocks on his door to cut the budget, he said simply, "It has never happened."
Follow Luke Steere at twitter.com/lsnashobapub.