MOWEAQUA — It was almost a case of band on the run five years ago in the Central A&M School District.
Fading like a dwindling note, the district’s band program was down to 45 members in fifth grade through high school. The high school band in Moweaqua had just 14 players, and some of them were getting ready to make prestissimo movements toward the nearest exit.
“To be honest, if Mr. Manzi hadn’t come along, I don’t think I would still be in band,” said Genny Rose Stringer, a 16-year-old junior who now plays a mean tenor saxophone. “I was thinking about doing it my eighth-grade year, but definitely not in high school. All my friends were leaving it.”
Mr. Manzi is Peter Manzi, the director of bands, who arrived five years ago after earning his degree in music education from Millikin University. The newly minted teacher, who likes to wear formal evening dress to school events when he is conducting, brought a sense of enthusiasm and purpose. And he made the band survivors a promise: “I knew we had a great group of kids in this school, and I put the future in their hands,” he said.
“I saw potential there to challenge them to be better than they thought they could be. I said, ‘Give me your trust, and I’d love to take us on to big things, to make us competitive. But you’ve got to trust me and give me some time to get there.’ ”
The ramp-up came with a renewed focus on developing budding musicians at the middle-school level and offering all ages more challenging music, from classics to pop standards and all stops in between. Gradually, Manzi awakened the idea that playing together can be fun and rewarding. Now there are 120 kids in the band program in fifth grade through high school; the high school band itself boasts 37 members (even more are about to join from middle school) and there also is a jazz band.
“Today, people see being in band as a great opportunity,” said alto saxophonist Jordan Villanueva, a 16-year-old junior who also knows how to make a piano get up and boogie. “Being in band is a great experience, a lot of great experiences, and a lot of chances to do more with music.”
It’s a similar story on the vocal music front, where another Millikin grad in his first teaching job has breathed new life into choral performance. General music teacher and director of choirs Jacob Elam has been around a bit longer than Manzi, having arrived to teach at the middle-school level seven years ago, but only took over high school choral duties two years ago when another teacher retired.
“When I got to the middle school, there were nine sixth-graders and 18 seventh- eighth-graders in choir and only girls sang in the seventh and eighth grades,” he recalled with a smile. “Now, in the middle school, we’ve got 72 in choir, including 15 boys, and there are 20 in the high school choir. And, while last year we only had one high school boy in choir, this year we are up to three.”
He took the same approach as Manzi, working hard to cultivate musical talent in the lower grades and challenging and encouraging them to improve. He serves up a regular diet of classical and modern works but also likes to give his singers room to find their own voice and just sing for the fun of it.
“I always use the analogy of eating,” said Elam, 29. “You are supposed to eat healthy and, with choir music, that means having enough of the vegetables and meat traditional stuff. But you have got to have a little dessert as well, something the kids really enjoy.”
Seniors Jennifer Dial and Amanda Collins, both 17, rattle off the dessert song titles together like a duet: “ ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey,” the girls say as one. “And we did ‘Jump’ (the 1984 hit by Van Halen).”
“We’ve been doing a lot of fun stuff,” Jennifer added. “That’s right,” agreed Amanda. “Being in choir today is not like where people make fun of you; now it’s just something you do, and it’s fun.”
Students in the Central A&M music programs also are having their eyes opened to the possibilities of where success can take them. On March 14, Manzi’s band really was on the run as he took 52 of his young musicians to Disney World. The students earned a performance spot in the Dreams Come True Parade, which weaves its way right through the Magic Kingdom, after Disney approved their audition tape. They also took part in an instructional workshop with one of Disney’s professional conductors in a six-day trip that cost more than $44,000 and was paid for by the students, with help from the wider community.
The students had a grand time, and suddenly everybody would like to have been in the band.
“When I was in middle school, being in band didn’t always sound like a cool thing,” Genny Rose said. “But now it’s a very, very cool thing.”