Amy Barthel understands the delicate transition students face in leaving elementary school and transitioning to middle school.
As the fine arts coordinator for the Washoe County School District (WCSD), she directs the music, art and theater programs for the district’s 13,310 students who attend its 17 middle schools. It’s a responsibility that shapes minds and hearts through high school and beyond.
“Middle school is where they start figuring out who they are and where they fit into the world,” says Barthel, a musician herself. “Elementary school was fun, but middle school students naturally lose some engagement. Which is why music, art, theater and athletics are so important. Those programs give them a hook. Reading, writing and math are the reasons why we go to school, but everything else is what keeps the kids engaged.
“Fortunately, all sixth-graders are expected to choose a band, a choir or an orchestra course,” Barthel says. “That’s the key to our musical success — the opportunity for them to engage with one of the musical contents.”
Tellingly, about a third of seventh and eighth graders continue on with music as an elective, she says. “Music is exciting and rewarding, but can be very challenging,” she says. “What’s really exciting about it is it’s a team effort. A music student’s job as an individual is important, but the job of teammate is even more important.”
Typically at the start, sixth graders get to choose between band (wind and percussion instrument), orchestra (stringed instruments) and choir (singing), she explains.
Next, the music teachers give an overview of all the instruments, structuring the introduction to encourage the students to make a connection with the instruments. “As in, ‘Wow, that’s the sound I want to learn how to make,’” Barthel says.
What about child prodigies?
“It’s very rare that a student with no experience will walk in and excel with their natural abilities,” she says. “Usually it’s a case of them taking piano or violin lessons since they were (age) three. It’s a myth that music is a talent, it’s not. It is a skill that is learned with practice and hard work.”
Barthel is an enthusiastic advocate of music students “finding like-minded people,” she says. “When they do that, music creates a place where students feel like they have a home at school, a home away from home. They have family.”
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