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Celebrating music in schools

Music in Our Schools Month is March

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Dorothy, played by Nahlia Bracey, and Toto, played by Groot the dog, sing a solo at the start of the “Wizard of Oz” production at Fort Dodge Middle School on March 13.

Music is a lifelong connection.

“It’s something that you will always have,” said Joan Ascherl, choir director at Fort Dodge Middle School. “Once you’ve found that love of music, you will never lose that.”

March is Music in Our Schools Month, a time to “raise awareness of the importance of music education for all children — and to remind citizens that school is where all children should have access to music,” according to the National Association for Music Education.

“Every day, in classrooms and rehearsal rooms across the United States, music educators dedicate themselves to reaching all students with life-changing musical experiences,” the National Association for Music Education said. “What parents, administrators, and the wider community have not always had the opportunity to observe, however, is the months of practice and rehearsals, and the process of learning that takes place in the music classroom and on the stage.”

In the middle of the month, and before the COVID-19 coronavirus caused cancellations of music and theater productions, Ascherl’s eighth grade choir performed a production of the classic musical “The Wizard of Oz,” March 12-13.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
The munchkins and chorus perform during the “Wizard of Oz” musical at Fort Dodge Middle School on March 13.

“I was really pleased, it went very, very well,” Ascherl said.

The choir students spent weeks preparing for the musical, learning songs, dialog lines and choreography to perform on the big stage. However, putting that all together wasn’t without its challenges.

“We had some technical issues that week and we also had a lot of influenza A and B hitting our class,” Ascherl said.

Technical difficulties and illness don’t faze the theater ethos “the show must go on.”

“It’s always interesting doing shows because you have to be creative and fill gaps if necessary. I always tell kids to just roll with it. People don’t have a script in front of them so they don’t know when things are missing or changed necessarily,” Ascherl said. “I think it’s important that these kids are thinking on their feet and they’re learning how to rebound and bounce back when things get kind of difficult and know that it’s not going to be the end of the world and they can change things around, if they just carry on and put on a brave face, nobody’s going to know the difference.”

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
Dorothy, played by Nahlia Bracey, confers with Glenda the Good Witch, played by Sydney Gebers, during a performance of “The Wizard of Oz” at Fort Dodge Middle School.

As the middle school choir director, Ascherl teaches nearly 200 students in grades sixth through eighth. She has been a choir director for FDMS students for 34 years.

For the past few years, FDMS hasn’t offered a fifth grade choir class, but Ascherl does direct an after school honor choir for fifth and sixth graders who want to participate.

“It’s not as intensive as having it every other day at school, so it works,” she said. “I just didn’t want that year to go by without them having any chance to be in a choral group. They meet twice a week after school.”

The Fort Dodge Community School District also offers concert band and orchestra at the middle school and high school, as well as jazz band and marching band at the high school.

St. Edmond Catholic School also has an array of band, orchestra and vocal ensembles for students to perform with. Every winter, the St. Edmond High School choir students spread a musical message of love in the form of singing valentines for Valentine’s Day.

-Messenger photo by Kelby Wingert
The Cowardly Lion, played by Evan Pratt, laments on his lack of courage during the Fort Dodge Middle School choir production of “The Wizard of Oz” on March 13.

“Music provides an outlet for kids to express themselves,” Ascherl said. “And kids need to understand that this is impactful, not only for building confidence and being able to express themselves, but it also carries over into other areas. For instance, being in a musical or performing a solo in front of a group, it provides self-confidence, it builds that esteem that kids need in the world today more than ever.”

The confidence and self-esteem that students gain from music programs can continue to help them later in life and in their careers, even those not related to the fine arts, Ascherl said.

For years, studies have shown that students involved in the various music ensembles tend to do better in the academic classes, have higher grade point averages and are involved in more extracurriculars, and Ascherl thinks that rings true with her students as well.

“For kids in band, choir and orchestra, you’re seeing those kids not only being more active in music, but they have a job, they also do community service, they’re also doing AP classes, they’re in student government, they tutor,” she said. “They’re doing a lot of different things.”

She said there’s a “huge correlation” between music and opening neuro pathways in the brain and helping students become better learners in other content areas like math and science.

-Submitted photo
The Fort Dodge Senior High choir performs during its holiday concert last December.

As an educator, Ascherl sees her job as more than just teaching her students music.

“My job is, hopefully, that I help them become better people, that are more empathetic, that are better listeners, that are better cheerleaders for each other when things get tough,” she said.

Ascherl is a lifelong advocate for music in schools, but notes some concerns she has that, while she hasn’t seen it happening locally, has been occurring in districts across the country.

“I do think that school budget-wise nationally funding for the arts needs to continue now more than ever,” she said. “I worry, because I have seen a trend nationally that the arts are getting cut.”

With how the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is affecting everyone’s day-to-day life, Ascherl thinks music is something that can help keep some normalcy in peoples’ lives.

-Submitted photo
The Fort Dodge Senior High jazz band is one of the instrumental music ensembles that students can participate in.

“This is the thing that is going to save us all as far as when we get bored,” she said. “If we do get quarantined, if we do have to self-isolate, the things we turn to most are the arts. We turn to books, we turn to movies, we turn to musicals, we turn to music. Even drawing or writing poetry. Those are the things that are going to sustain us.”

Enjoying music is something that an individual doesn’t need anyone else to do, she said.

“You can do it by yourself,” Ascherl said. “You can listen to a song that motivates you, that brings you up when you’re feeling down.”

-Submitted photo
The Fort Dodge Senior High choir performs during its holiday concert last December.

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