Music classes in Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) start in elementary school, where all students learn to play an instrument in fourth grade. The students who continue to play long past they are required to, however, are the players that feed into the Berkeley High School (BHS) Band and Orchestra classes.
The BHS Jazz Band has produced phenomenal musicians, including big names like Josh Redman, Benny Green, and Ambrose Akinmusire. The band won the Folsom Jazz Festival in 2019 and was invited to perform at the Mingus Festival. It is also known for field trips to Cuba, where students explore the roots of jazz.
Part of the band’s success can be attributed BUSD students’ access to musical instruments. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with many other school districts.
Martin Luther King Middle School Band Director Nancy Boyles explained that “the first thing that is cut from an underfunded school district is sadly the arts programs.”
Another factor that has led to the success of the music program is the teaching staff. The inclusivity of the BHS Orchestra, directed by Mary Dougherty, was emphasized by senior Clio Petty. “Ms. Dougherty is very kind and welcoming,” she said. “She works really hard to make sure the class is interesting and inclusive.”
Without incredible teachers like Dougherty, Sarah Cline, or Karen Wells, the BUSD music classes could not exist.
Starting in elementary school, music is a meaningful part of students’ education in BUSD. Nolan White, a BHS senior, has been playing jazz ever since he picked up the trombone in the fourth grade. White said that music is an important part of elementary school, as it “provides [the students] with an academic break that still improves cognitive abilities.” In other words, there is more to an elementary schooler’s education than studying math and English. A similar sentiment was expressed by Boyles: to her, a music program is part of the school district’s effort to develop “every aspect of the student’s education.”
Marcel Shoemaker, a senior at BHS and trumpet player in the Jazz Ensemble, commented that his experiences learning an instrument helped him “cultivate a work ethic.” He feels that he was not provided the same opportunity by his strictly academic work.
Another aspect of the artistic education provided by the music program is the blossoming community. Boyles was quick to cite music’s ability to heal, create joy, and “bring [communities] together.” White took a similar stance by stating that “a lot of teamwork goes into making [the music] sound good.” Shoemaker also commented on the music program’s social benefits.
The range of music classes offered in BUSD is an undeniably unique feature of students’ education. If you are interested in celebrating and supporting this stand out music program, consider attending the BHS Jazz Band’s regular performances at lunch, and its upcoming show in early November.