REXBURG – The petting zoo is moving out of the barn and into the band room where musical instruments will replace livestock during the “Instrument Petting Zoo” on Tuesday at Madison Middle School.
It’s all a result of a joint venture between Madison Middle School Band Director Susanna Blackwood and Brigham Young University-Idaho music education majors who are teaming up to present this first annual event.
It’s all in an effort to help Madison County families celebrate the national March “All Music, All People, Music in Our Schools Month” sponsored by The National Association for Music Education.
“This event is to give incoming fifth graders a chance to explore all the different band instruments and (to) give them an idea of an instrument they might want to play in the Madison Middle School band program,” stated the BYU-Idaho music education majors in a press release.
The Instrument Petting Zoo is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m., Tuesday in the middle school’s multi-purpose room. The first 100 people through the door will receive free tickets to a BYU-Idaho band concert. Madison Middle School is located at 575 W 7th South.
“We’re going to have a lot of band instruments available for incoming fifth graders to try before they sign up for band in the fifth grade,” said BYU-Idaho music education student Alyssa Crawford. “We’ll teach them how to get some notes out of the instruments and how to hold it.”
A trombone player, Crawford, said that the event is fulfilling the practicum portion of her major.
“There are five of us helping out. We’ll also have some volunteers from the National Musical Education Association to teach other instruments that we don’t know as well,” she said.
The students got the idea from BYU-Idaho Music Professor Steven Hendricks.
“It’s really from the idea of a petting zoo where you get to pet and meet animals. Students will get to go around and learn different instruments,” Crawford said. “We’re really excited, and hope we have a good turnout. We’re hoping to make it an annual thing.”
When approached about the idea of an Instrument Petting Zoo for aspiring musicians, Blackwood quickly agreed to it.
“I thought it was a great idea. I wish I had thought of that sooner,” she said.
Blackwood reported that the BYU-Idaho students created a flyer announcing the event and went to the Madison District’s elementary schools where they talked to fourth graders about joining the middle school’s band program.
“The key is going into those classes and getting them all fired up about it. They’ve done all the ground work,” she said. “It’s really part of their job as they become band directors. They’ll have to do recruitment and this kind of stuff later on.”
Currently, Blackwood teaches 120 middle school musicians.
“We’re doing some recruiting and getting the word out. We’re trying to grow the program. I would love to have 220 students,” she said.
The Instrument Petting Zoo will allow parents and their children to hold the different kinds of instruments and decide on one to play. Everything from flutes to clarinets to saxophones to trombones will be on display.
Blackwood noted that her young musicians especially like the trumpet and saxophone. A saxophone player herself, Blackwood says that the instrument proves popular for her musicians.
“It’s the coolest instrument ever,” she said.
Blackwood says that her band needs more brass instruments such as trombones and baritones. She emphasized that there are no “girl” or “boy” instruments. Blackwood noted that such was the case when she attended middle school in Selma, Alabama, during the 1970s.
“The band director said ‘Boys play the saxophone and trombone. Girls play the flute and clarinet’,” she recalled.
That all changed shortly after Blackwood’s mother told the band director that her daughter wanted to play the saxophone and that was that.
“I was the only girl in the band who played the saxophone. I broke through that barrier. I have a few boys on the flute but not as many. Mostly the girls gravitate toward the flute and clarinet. I have several girls on the trumpet and on trombone,” she said.
Blackwood teachers teach two sixth grade classes every day and two fifth grade classes three days a week. She says that musical education helps youth develop in numerous ways.
“I’ve seen lots of miracles. A few kids who think they’re never going to pick this up, and then one day, a light will turn on, and they can play really well,” she said.
Blackwood notes that band students remain friends throughout their school years thanks to their involvement in various bands.
“That’s really nice. It’s a special group of friends they can count on,” she said. “I’m still friends with high school band friends from Alabama. You’re friends for life.”
Band provides a niche for students who may not be interested in other extracurricular activities.
“It’s just so important for kids to play music and to be part of something besides just school. It gives them a place to belong,” she said.
Blackwood strives to provide a stress-free zone during band practice.
“Some kids are never going to be on the football team. This is the place for them. I try to make it fun — no pressure. At this age level, they completely love it. I remember being called on in class to play. You can’t do it, and you’re humiliated. I don’t want my kids to feel that way. (They’ll say) ‘This is a safe place where nobody’s going to poke fun at me or laugh at me,’” she said.
Blackwood notes that her musicians improve throughout the year.
“They have to get through those honks and squawks and figure out their embouchure,” she said.
The “embouchure” proves tricky and involves how a musician holds the instrument on their lips or in their mouth. It involves everything from facial muscles to breathing to what’s called “tonguing” notes. It also involves the placement of the teeth on a mouthpiece, as is the case with the saxophone and clarinet.
Playing an instrument, of course, also involves reading music, understanding time signatures and the values associated with each note. With band instruments, it means learning how to breathe correctly, Blackwood said.
“We were just taking a piece, and this one line that’s really long and has staggered breathing. I said ‘How are we going to do that? Who’s going to take a breath on measure three or measure four?’ There are some new concepts that come up every day,” she said.
Blackwood notes how her students struggle at the first of the year but eventually learn how to hold their instruments, read music and play.
“To hear them say ‘I can’t do this, it’s so hard’ to ‘Now it’s easy,’” she said. “We always go back after every concert and review what we did before. I remember in September when this was so terribly hard, and it sounded so terribly bad. Now it sounds good.”
Blackwood has taught at the middle school for two years. She and her husband, Scott, moved to Rexburg from California after she spied an opening for a Madison Middle School music teacher and quickly applied. She is so glad that she did so.
“The kids here are so kind and wonderful. I’m so lucky that I found this place. It’s the best community. I love living here except for the winter. This last one was kind of tough,” she said.
During Tuesday’s Instrument Petting Zoo, there will be plenty of disinfectant available for children testing the various instruments. This should prevent an outbreak of any illnesses that the schools experienced earlier this year, she said.
“We’ll have lots of sanitizer to make sure we don’t spread any germs. We don’t want to do that after that winter we went through,” she said.
Blackwell and the BYU-Idaho students invited Madison School District families to attend the Instrument Petting Zoo on Tuesday. For more information on the event, call the Madison Middle School at 208-359-3320. Additional information on national musical education may be found at https://nafme.org/programs/miosm/.