Pupils get gift of music

Grant: Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation provided money that allowed Mother Seton Academy in Upper Fells Point to set up a free program.

January 12, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Whenever it was time for band practice at her last school, Shilesha Adams would watch enviously as her classmates ran off to their lessons.

Her mother told her the sessions were too expensive, but that didn't make it any less painful. She wanted to play.

So, when her new school -- Mother Seton Academy in Upper Fells Point -- started a free band program this academic year, Shilesha, 11, didn't hesitate to sign up.

A few lessons later, the sixth-grader is a budding saxophonist.

"I always wanted to play in a band," Shilesha said during practice last week. "They say I'm good at it."

Mother Seton, a tuition-free Roman Catholic middle school for children from low-income families, created the band program after receiving a grant from the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Inspired by the movie about an inspirational high school music teacher, the foundation was created two years ago by the film's star Richard Dreyfuss, composer Michael Kamen and director Stephen Herek, to promote instrumental music nationwide and give pupils like Shilesha a chance to play.

By becoming partners with businesses and communities, the nonprofit foundation provides new and refurbished musical instruments to schools and individuals in need, said Gillian Baylow, the foundation's director of programs and operations.

The foundation has donated instruments to 27 programs and 1,300 individual pupils nationwide.

Mother Seton, which opened six years ago, received the only grant in the state. The school received 36 instruments and related equipment, 30 music stands and several books.

While the items were purchased at a discount rate, the total retail value is $32,800, Baylow said.

Sister Mary Bader, the principal at Mother Seton, said many of the school's 65 pupils had never touched a musical instrument, so they were eager to get their hands on a drum, trumpet or other piece.

"A lot of these kids don't have these kinds of opportunities," Bader said. "We would have had 65 kids in the band if possible."

Donya Curry, 11, said he signed up for band so he could learn to play the trumpet and maybe try another instrument later.

"It's fun," the sixth-grader said. "I like playing for people."

The 24 band members take lessons once a week from instructor Jennifer Campbell and practice twice a week with Mother Seton teachers.

Campbell said the pupils have been enthusiastic.

"Since they are older than most beginners, they pick up faster," she said.

After 10 lessons and one ensemble practice, they performed their first concert Dec. 17, much to their parents' delight.

"It was wonderful," said Jaquetta Dickerson, whose son, Timothy, plays the bass drum. "They are doing a good job at that school."

Anjelica Benner, 13, plays the trumpet. She said that when she started at Mother Seton, the school had no music teacher or instruments. The school had a choir, and a piano was donated a few years ago.

"I had no idea I would ever get to play in a band here," said Anjelica, an eighth-grader.

Bader said the music program helps the school provide its students a more well-rounded education.

And, yes, she did see the 1995 movie, "Mr. Holland's Opus," in which Dreyfuss' character builds a music program over several decades, only to be forced to retire because of budget cuts.

"It helped me realize, as a teacher, how important art and music are in a curriculum," she said.

Pub Date: 1/12/99

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