Bands' duct-tape fixes may soon end

Balto. Co. proposal targets old instruments

May 16, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

To the trained ears of music judges, the band is part of an award-winning music program. But even the untrained eye can see that something doesn't look right during the concert at Perry Hall High School.

Why are the drums held together with duct tape? Why are the tubas covered with dents and scratches?

"These instruments are so old it's ridiculous," said junior Jessica Seidel, a tuba player in Perry Hall's wind ensemble, who uses a four-valve tuba with only three working valves. "Everyone who hears us is impressed with our sound, but then they see our shabby instruments and they don't know what to think."

In schools across Baltimore County, music teachers and student musicians have spent years grappling with aging instruments, a problem so severe the county is considering spending $3.2 million in the next school year for hundreds of new instruments.

Some instruments make constant trips to repair shops. Many are fixed with homemade remedies -- a little solder here, a lot of tape there. And more than a handful have so many dents, small holes and sticky parts that they'll never again sound quite right.

"Almost all of the problems are due to normal wear and tear, but when an instrument is almost 30 years old, that's a lot of time for wear and tear," said Michele Grden, music teacher at Orems and Pleasant Plains elementary schools, as she looks at a beat-up 1971 alto saxophone. "It's hard to encourage students to love playing music when you're offering them instruments from the time when the Beatles came to America."

Beyond life expectancy

A survey of the county's 5,833 band and orchestra instruments found that 3,818 -- or 65 percent -- are at least 15 years old, said Clinton Marshall, the school system's coordinator of music.

Almost a quarter of the county's instruments are more than 25 years old, and the school system spends $60,000 per year on repairs, Marshall said.

"They have all outlived their life expectancy, which with proper maintenance is 15 years," Marshall said. "But they're still being played because that's all the schools have."

But the 1999-2000 school year looks like the time when everything might change for the music programs at Baltimore County's 161 schools -- in large part due to an orchestrated lobbying effort by parents, students and teachers.

They have attended budget hearings, written letters and made phone calls, proudly displaying their tape-covered instruments to anyone who would look.

This winter, schools Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione proposed spending $750,000 on new music instruments, beginning a five-year, comprehensive replacement program.

But Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has proposed doing even more. He seeks to give the schools the entire $3.2 million in just one year -- a request that is to be discussed by the County Council during a work session Tuesday afternoon.

"The executive figured that if we did it over a number of years, the instruments were only going to get that much older," said Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Ruppersberger. "He just didn't want the kids to go on playing such old instruments."

Creative repairs

The executive received an up-close exhibit of Perry Hall's aging instruments during his inauguration this past winter, when the school band received a standing ovation for its performance -- while playing with a bass drum held together with gray duct tape.

The school's primary snare drum is a carefully crafted combination of masking tape, string and colorful yarn. "We fix this thing every other week," said sophomore Chris Ryan, who plays in the school's symphonic wind band.

Last fall, Perry Hall played in the Miss America parade as the honor band -- an honor it won the year before when it finished first in the Miss America parade's high school band competition. Just before the students began marching, the harness on a drum snapped, requiring a mess of duct tape for the entire march.

"It hurts the kids a little to be marching in a big event and to look like we're using war-issue instruments," said Robert Hamberg, Perry Hall's band director.

Of course, at countywide band events, just about every high school's instruments look the same.

First to go

The majority of instruments that would be replaced with the $3.2 million are large instruments such as drums, tubas, bassoons and baritone saxophones.

A new baritone saxophone costs $2,396, and a new bassoon costs $2,858, Marshall said.

For such smaller instruments as trumpets, violins and flutes, students are expected to provide their own -- typically by renting them for $20 to $30 per month -- though arrangements can be made for students from low-income families.

County and school officials hope to begin a regular instrument replacement cycle after next year, an effort that Marshall estimates will cost about $315,000 per year.

Even though Perry Hall's 12th-graders will have graduated long before any new instruments are bought, many have joined in the lobbying efforts to secure the money from the county government.

Senior Jason Gorman hopes that if the school gets the instruments, he might be able to keep a white fiberglass sousaphone that is covered with so much tape it looks to be almost beyond repair.

"One time, just before we were going to go onto the field, the bell fell off, but I managed to jam it back on before we started marching," Jason said.

"I spent so much time keeping this thing working that I would love to be able to keep it instead of seeing it get thrown away."

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