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Members of the District 308 Honor Band play John Mackey's 'Sheltering Sky.'

As a part of Music in Our Schools Month, we are featuring several music educators and their work in music advocacy. All of them exemplify the values of Citizen Musicianship through their dedicated teaching and as enthusiastic champions for the arts.

Rachel Maxwell is the band director at Traughber Junior High School in Oswego, Ill., and she also serves as the junior high fine arts department chair for District 308. Her extensive program not only provides an opportunity for students to learn to play instruments, but also for community members to come together and appreciate the value of arts education. Maxwell’s goal is for students and parents to become advocates for the program, and for music education. To learn more about her program, please visit traughberband.weebly.com.

How has music shaped your life? What inspired you to seek a career in music education?

Music has been the center of my life since I was a small child. I grew up in Rockford, Ill., and the band program started in seventh grade but it was a very good and I had great teachers. I chose French horn and was pretty hard-core about it right away. In high school, I joined the Rockford Area Youth Symphony, and participated in all of the area Honor Bands/Orchestras, IMEA ensembles, etc. I joined the Phantom Regiment in my junior year of high school, which had a tremendous impact on my work ethic and pursuit of perfection.

I had no other choice but to do music as a career – by that, I mean that since the time I was in seventh grade I knew that it would be my career choice. I started out wanting to be a performer but after student teaching I realized how much I enjoyed working with students.

Can you give an overview of your program? How has it changed since you started, and what do you want to see happen in the future?

Our program has approximately 350 students in grades six through eight. We start in sixth grade with separate woodwind, brass and percussion classes.  In seventh and eighth grades, we continue with the separate instrument classes, because of the high number of students and the pedagogical advantages. The grade-level model provides more benefits for the students – they develop leadership skills, so we make sure to give them peer coaching opportunities, and we also have the students model playing for each other. The weaker students develop faster and farther than if they were isolated in a “low” band. This works well for this age group, and it builds pride within the group, and a sense of accomplishment.

We also offer a jazz band and a wind ensemble out of the school day for students who want an enrichment experience and can handle more responsibility on their individual parts.

The program has grown from two band classes of 140 students to seven classes of band since I have been here. We continue to push what students are able to achieve musically each year.

What has been your favorite memory in teaching? Is there any event coming up that you’re particularly excited about?

Every year has great memories or events but a few stick out for me:

We did a commission with John Mackey, an American composer of classical music, a couple of years ago for the piece Sheltering Sky. Our students premiered the piece and were excited to meet and work with John. It was a great experience. I then heard the Air Force Band play the piece at the Midwest Clinic. It was a very proud moment for our program to be a part of something that our eighth graders could enjoy and the world’s finest band musicians could also love.

My horn students presented a clinic at Midwest this past December and they were very excited to be a part of that.

We have a new commission from Dr. Donald Grantham, another excellent classical music composer, premiering in April, Sol y Sombre. It has already been selected for inclusion in the next edition of Teaching Music Through Performance in Band series and will be recorded by the University of North Texas this summer.

The day-to-day work with the students is the best part aside from these big public events. When they “get it” and are proud of themselves and what they are accomplishing – those are the best parts of teaching.

How do you advocate for the arts and music in particular?

We try to advocate by “doing” in our program. We bring about 1,000 people into our school for each concert, and we show the value of what we do by presenting something of artistic value at a very mature and polished level. If I can provide an experience that is valuable to their child and makes the whole school experience that much better, then the parents and students become the advocates for the program. I don’t need to have a heavy hand in it when there is authentic accomplishment, pride and understanding of the art form on the part of the kids and families.

Tell me about your district’s fine arts festival. What inspired its creation?

About 15 years ago we wanted an experience for our students which would hold all of our directors to a very high standard without the artificial application of a rating. It is also a chance for the students to hear bands from the other schools. All of the beginner, seventh-grade and eighth-grade bands from the five junior high schools perform. Instead of scoring the ensembles, and assigning a rating, we use rubrics with comments, to give the students and instructors constructive feedback. We want our adjudicators to be free to make suggestions and share their feedback without the baggage of the rating. We also make sure to hire judges who truly want to work with the students, and will give them helpful feedback on their performance.

The students are very motivated because they want to represent themselves and their program. The younger students will sometimes ask who won, but we turn it around and ask them who they think won, and then we have them tell us why. We try to put “winning” in the correct context of mastery. If we have mastered all of our concepts and executed them at the highest level, then of course we “won”!

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The students. Absolutely. The most rewarding part is when I start a student as a brand-new beginner and watch them learn how to open the case, and eventually they get to the point where they do not need me anymore. They can enjoy being a musician, independent from me. That is a pretty amazing thing to help someone learn how to do.

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