Student musicians preparing to rehearse at the middle school last June, above, and performing at the borough sidewalk sale a month later. (Photo above by John T. Ward, below by Wayne Woolley. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
A year after budget cuts appeared to doom the strings program at the Red Bank primary and middle schools, the band is back.
As part of the the borough-based Monmouth Conservatory of Music’s 50th Anniversary Gala Concert, strings players from the two-school district will take the stage of the vaunted Count Basie Theatre for a song Saturday.
But the appearance signals more than mere survival of a music program that was on the verge of disappearing when $80,000 was cut from the district 2014-’15 budget, advocates said. Rather, it marks the culmination of a community-wide effort to restore the program and position it for the future.
The effort to stave off extinction included strings teachers who offered lessons free of charge; parents who joined with the Red Bank Borough Education Foundation to raise money for instrument repairs and a six-week New Jersey Symphony Orchestra coach-in-residence program this winter; state Senator Jennifer Beck, who held a series of “strings summits” to help lay the groundwork for future partnerships; and an anonymous donor who kicked in $12,000 to fund the program on a part-time, before-and-after-school basis, according to an announcement Wednesday by district Superintendent Jared Rumage.
Some background, from the announcement:
The strings program was started about a decade ago after an anonymous donor generously gave 100 instruments to Red Bank, a high-poverty district where 90% of the students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. In that time, the program became so successful that Red Bank students formed the core of the orchestra at the nationally recognized Visual and Performing Arts Academy at Red Bank Regional (RBR) High School, which also draws students from the more affluent towns of Little Silver and Shrewsbury. According to Jeffrey Boga, RBR strings teacher, Red Bank Middle School students represented 71 percent of the strings majors, 67 percent of the orchestra members, and 50 percent of the school’s chamber ensemble during the 2014-15 school year.
After funding for the strings program was cut from the budget amid a 10-percent spike in the district tax, Boga stepped in and provided free lessons to students until a formal before-and-after school program was put in place in October, Rumage said. That program was funded by the anonymous donor.
In following months, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s coach-in-residence program provided supplemental instruction to Red Bank Middle School students over a six-week period. Then, just as that program was coming to a close, Irina Kovalsky, associate director of the Monmouth Conservatory, offered free strings lessons at the conservatory’s White Street location. She also invited the students to perform at the gala concert Saturday.
“Ms. Kovalsky and others selflessly stepped forward when the children of Red Bank needed them most and used their talents to help save a vital program,” said Rumage. “I certainly appreciate their efforts. It’s been a great experience. And it’s been a catalyst to help us generate a more robust program and a greater enthusiasm for strings.”
Rumage said the district is now working to build on the momentum to offer a more vibrant arts program during the next school year.
For starters, the general music program will be led by a newly assigned teacher with a mandate to revitalize the band and chorus programs will be the primary focus. The teacher will also act as a coordinator for the strings program, Rumage said.
From the announcement:
Next, Red Bank will use private funding to bring the NJSO’s coach-in-residence program back on a much larger scale. Instead of six weeks, the NJSO will provide small-group instruction to students for 24 weeks during the 2015-16 school year.
In addition, Rumage is planning to use grant money to continue to provide after-school instruction. And he is working to secure additional grant funding to continue the school’s relationship with Monmouth Conservatory.
Music instruction will not stop during the summer. The Jazz Arts Project, a Red Bank nonprofit, will return to the middle school for two weeks starting July 13th and offer a free band and strings camp—up from one week last year. The camp will run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is open to Red Bank students entering fourth through eighth grades. There are 100 spots available this year.
Beyond all of this, Red Bank is looking to expand the scope of its arts programming even more. Rumage said the schools are currently working with Count Basie Theater to provide a more intensive arts experience to middle school students next year, ranging from music and dance to theater and creative writing.
“This is an exciting time for Red Bank and the arts,” Rumage said. “Stay tuned for more.”
For the Monmouth Conservatory, meanwhile, Saturday’s concert marks a major milestone. Click on over here for details.