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Composing a Sustainable Note

By Jeannie Howard | Photo Credit: Michael Melnyk

The Richmond High School Marching Band, the Orchestra, and Andrew Wilke, band instructor, were honored to have been requested to play at the opening of the Richmond Ferry Building in January of this year.

Upon accepting the part-time after school teaching position at Richmond High School Andrew Wilke, band teacher, realized he had quite a bit of work ahead of him. “From the first day I walked into the office everyone was speaking Spanish and I thought that maybe it wasn’t gonna work cause I didn’t know what anyone was saying,” explained Wilke. “And the building was a mess with clutter everywhere, so I knew there would be a lot of cleaning.”

Since that first day nearly five years ago, Wilke has not only learned more Spanish, cleaned up and organized the band room, but has also became the full-time band instructor and completely transformed the Richmond High School Band. It had been decades since the school had a real high school level band program, so Wilke was essentially working from scratch. “In decades prior there had been little spurts of programs that existed but sort of fizzled out and were never really full programs, so no one knew what a music program looked like or what to expect,” he shared. “The bar was set pretty low and I knew that I could do better than nothing.”

With the handful of students enrolled in band at the beginning—those that had been begging the school for a real band program—and almost no instruments, Wilke set to work on building the program he wanted. “There is no standard formula for a school music program and it is tricky to find resources to learn about doing music at a Title 1 school,” he said. The lack of available resources did not stop or even slow Wilke down. “So, my first year here there were only eight kids in the program and we still went and did the Cinco de Mayo parade, it was cool!”

By the end of his first year as the full-time band instructor, his class grew to about 25 students and has continued to grow each year thereafter, and currently stands at close to 170 students participating in the five bands classes. “I have two beginning band classes, a string orchestra that we started this year—Hercules is the only other school in the district to have one—a symphonic band, which is the top band, and then a jazz band,” Wilke described.

To have taken a once failing after-school band program to becoming one of the top high school bands in the region, took persistent and dedicated pushing from Wilke on the district and school. Even with his constant advocating, Wilke will be the first to admit that if it weren’t for the school administration and the students the program would not have made it this far. “As a teacher, especially a music teacher, if you don’t have the admin support you’re really not going to be able to do anything and they have really supported me through all of our crazy growth,” he said.

Now that the program is getting really good, Wilke said, his long-term goal is to focus on the sustainability of the program. “Since there have been many programs come and go my goal is to make the program strong so whenever the day comes that I’ll have to leave here—hopefully that is a really long time from now—the program is strong enough that someone else could step in and keep it going,” he described. “Keeping something going is a lot harder that starting something.”

In addition to having a parent booster group for the first time since he started, which Wilke said is monumental because parent support helps ensure a program will continue, making the band program financially independent is a key element in the sustainability of it. “We are fundraising constantly and accepting donation so we can do more trips,” he said. “The reality is that this school is in an impoverished community and as the program grows it gets more expensive and the school district has many important programs to spend money on, so I want this program to be financially independent and stable so we don’t have to beg for money from the school.”

For Wilke, music is essential in schools. “Music programs in school is important, but especially for schools like ours because our kids here deal with a lot of real life stuff, more than most adults,” he said. “Music is a language, an emotional language that can serve as an outlet and a safe space where I can reach students where other teachers are not.”

Having been a musician since he was in fourth grade, music was just as essential for Wilke when he was a child. “Music was pretty much the only thing I was interested in and if I wouldn’t have done it I don’t know what I would have done; I would have had a much different path.”

While his job is quite stressful, he continues because he gets to play music every day and gains so much inspiration from his students. “My seniors this year started with me when they were freshman, I started all of them on their instruments, so it is cool but also pretty emotional having them getting ready to graduate,” he shared. “It really is an honor to step into a kid’s life and contribute and hopefully help them.”

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