For the past 15 years, Upper and Middle School Music Teacher Kelly Dean has been looking for opportunities to share the power of music with Shearn Elementary, our friendly neighbor on Stella Link. Continuing to build upon the already decade-long partnership between the two schools, Kelly felt it was vital to share his love of music with the students. “I find it endlessly inspiring to uplift others, and sharing the gift of music can make the biggest impact in the community and beyond,” says Kelly.
Getting this program off the ground was no small feat, especially with the recent pandemic making it challenging to begin. Nevertheless, Kelly had the vision, and Shearn Elementary had the will, and finding the instruments was the only remaining hurdle. Thanks to the generosity of Kelly’s former saxophone student, Matt Mullenweg, a Houston-based entrepreneur and web developer known for developing WordPress, the instruments were donated to Shearn’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO).
The program meets every Monday and Wednesday after school and boasts 13 fifth-grade students who enthusiastically attend each lesson. Each session consists of the students learning to play contemporary popular music, classic rock, blues, and jazz on the piano, bass, guitar, and drums. Students are not just learning instruments but also getting a crash course into music theory, or as Kelly would call it, “music reality.” The after-school curriculum taught at Shearn is modeled after the curriculum taught at EWS for the past 10 years, based on the book written by Kelly 25 years ago titled “Jazz Essentials: Nuts & Bolts Instruction for the Jazz and Pop Musician.” By the time the students graduate from the program at the end of the year, they should be certified Level I on all instruments in the music curriculum.
The students at Shearn Elementary truly enjoy learning to play each instrument and all the positive benefits of the process. “I love playing the drums, and I feel like I am getting better each time,” says fifth-grader Kailia Allen. “I love music because it allows me to express myself.” And for fifth-grader Anthony Espinoza, he looks forward to improving as much as possible. “I like playing the guitar. I like the way it sounds, and I am learning so much. I want to start playing the piano next,” says Anthony.
The program benefits from having 10 dedicated EWS student volunteers who help teach, with them all being a Level IV in the music curriculum. For the EWS student volunteers, working with the students at Shearn has been an experience to grow as musicians and make connections in their community. EWS senior Margaret He, who has an extensive musical background, feels that the program at Shearn has
strengthened her skills as a musician and has developed her teaching skills. “What I like most about the experience is the teaching aspect. The kids do not start out having that instant understanding of the terms or techniques, so I have had to find creative ways to teach them,” says Margaret. “I have realized that learning is a process and that patience is key.”
EWS sophomore Juliette Hess enjoys volunteering with the program because she feels it is a great way to pay it forward, and she enjoys the bonds she has cultivated with the students. “I have been blessed to go to an amazing school that accommodates my passion for music, and sharing my knowledge with other students brings me so much happiness,” says Juliette. “The best part about working with the kids at Shearn is the friendships I have formed with them. They make me smile, and seeing them is always the highlight of my week.”
And it is not just the EWS students who are helping. The program is fortunate to benefit from the support of first-grade teacher and club sponsor Donna Harrington, Wraparound Resource Specialist Laura Peters, and our very own Josh Sheiman, who is in his ninth year at EWS as an upper and middle school music teacher. Josh manages the EWS student volunteers and is an instructor of the program. “I get happy seeing the students get excited over learning. They have so much energy, and we try to channel that into their experience in the program,” says Josh.
While the pilot program is in its first year, Kelly hopes it will have more participants in the future and that its current students will come back to help others as the years go on. “I want to see the students who finish the program come back and tutor others,” says Kelly. “It would be amazing to see this program turn into a student-led situation where they are mentoring each other and learning from one another.”
And while the program is geared toward teaching students how to play instruments, both Kelly and Josh hope this creates a positive ripple effect on the other aspects of their lives. “I hope it builds or strengthens their confidence in whatever they are doing and helps them to believe in their capabilities,” says Josh. “Music helps create connections as it transcends language or other borders, and it truly builds community,” says Kelly. “I think that having something they are excited about can inspire them to work towards other goals in and out of the classroom.”