Each spring fifth grade students in Lowell Area Schools (LAS) elementary schools have the opportunity to try out instruments and decide whether they’d like to sign up for band or orchestra upon entering sixth grade. Kate Bredwell is the Lowell Middle School (LMS) Director of Bands and loves welcoming new students each fall.
Music Background, Career in Lowell
Bredwell moved to Lowell in 1999 and plans to continue to keep her roots in the community. She and her husband, as well as their three kids, consider Lowell to be home. Her first year teaching at LAS was 25 years ago. It was also her first job after college graduation.
She began as the assistant band director at both the middle school and high school. After a few years, the middle school program was growing and she shifted her focus in that direction. Over the years she has taught sixth grade choir, a couple of hours of general music, and has assisted when there was a very large orchestra class. However, for the last 10-12 years Bredwell has been the Director of Bands at LMS. She has continued to be the Assistant Director for the high school marching band, helping teach during summer and evening rehearsals and at football games and parades. She designs the pre-game field drills for the marching band each year.
Bredwell graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in music education, but her interest in music started before college. “I was in band all through middle school and high school, and always enjoyed it, but I really fell in love with it in ninth grade,” she says. “Band was my life and it still is! And with something that enriched my life so much, I knew I wanted to share it with kids.”
She played clarinet throughout high school and into college. She took on alto saxophone in college as a member of the Spartan Marching Band. While the French horn is her favorite brass instrument, the one her daughter in high school plays, she enjoys all of the band instruments. “I had to learn how to play them all in college as part of my music education degree, and some were easier for me than others, but they’re all fun!” she says. Bredwell still plays in the Grand Rapids Symphonic Band and sometimes at church.
Looking back at her high school band teacher, Bredwell saw someone passionate about music and teaching and wanted a career she could love just as much. Originally she wanted to be a high school band director, but after the first few years of her career teaching high school and middle school kids she realized she loved working with the younger kids. She comments, “Their enthusiasm knows no limits and I LOVE seeing what they can accomplish with my help!”
On Teaching Band
When students decide to take band in sixth grade almost every one of them has never played an instrument before. Bredwell says they start from scratch, assuming they know nothing, introducing elements of playing the instrument a student has signed up to play. She has developed a “very methodical, step-by-step process” that includes how to breathe, how to make first sounds using only a mouthpiece, and learning basic notes and rhythms. After these first steps are taken, students learn to read music while playing an instrument. Bredwell says if kids put in a good effort in class and do a little practicing at home “it’s really not hard at all”.
According to Bredwell, the best thing she gets to experience while teaching band are the relationships with her students. She reflects saying, “I’ve had some amazing groups of kids come through over the years – kids who are not just wonderful musicians, but wonderful human beings,” of past students. “I’m lucky as a teacher in that I get to have many of my students for three years in a row, and I have the privilege of being a part of their life when they are experiencing huge growth as individuals.”
She also loves seeing when things click for a student, especially one who may have been struggling. Bredwell also appreciates how band often becomes a family for kids. She enjoys seeing kids form lifelong friendships in her class and calls it “amazing”.
Bredwell also takes pride in seeing her students succeed when they perform. “We work so hard in class on our pieces, and sometimes I’ll be wondering if I picked the right music or if I picked something too hard for them, but then they’ll just dig in and the performance turns out more amazing than I ever thought it would!” she explains. “ It’s just awesome that I get to share that experience with kids!”
The Importance of Band in Middle School
There are many reasons why it’s important for a student in middle school to learn to play an instrument. In no particular order, Bredwell shares some of the things that should motivate a student to become involved.
- Music is a great creative and emotional outlet for kids. Having a time during their school day when they can forget all the other things going on and focus on being hands-on and in-the-moment with a new skill is SO good for them.
- Being in band is a great place for kids to make new friends who share similar interests.
- Research demonstrates that the longer kids play an instrument in school, the better their GPAs are; even when controlling for socio-economic factors and other influences, researchers find that playing an instrument strongly corrolates with higher grades across the board, which of course helps kids get into better colleges and have many more advantages in life.
- As far as brain development goes, playing an instrument creates new brain connections in ways that nothing else can emulate – there are all the technical physical coordination factors that kids have to develop: moving your hands and breathing in time (and eventually stepping in time and moving your whole body in time with marching band); all the “intellectual content” of learning to read music and how to interpret that; and of course music is emotional as well: there are songs we love and songs we hate, and songs that trigger sadness or joy or relaxation or energy and so much more! No other subject in school that I know of does all those things at once!
In addition to band, students also have the option of being part of the orchestra. According to Bredwell, the main difference between the two are the instruments played and the style of performances. When it comes to which choice is better for a student, it should come down to which instrument the student likes the sound and feel of followed by the types of performances he or she would like to be part of.
Bredwell also stresses that students and families shouldn’t worry about kids involved in athletics who also want to play an instrument. The majority of kids in band and orchestra will do some type of sport at some point during their involvement with music. There have been varsity football players and cheerleaders in the high school marching band. Bredwell comments, “Our goal is to help develop well-rounded students who graduate from Lowell with many great experiences along the way.”
Life in Middle School Band
Due to the pandemic, the number of band participants has had really low numbers in the past couple of years. Fifth grade students weren’t able to try instruments in 2020 and in 2021 kids could only use mouthpieces versus the full instrument. As a result, only 55-60 kids have been in beginning band in recent years.
There’s hope that this will change going into the 2022-2033 school year. Fifth grade students throughout the district have been able to listen to and try a variety of instruments. So far about 80 kids have signed up for band in the fall. That number is still shy of the 85-100 students seen pre-pandemic. Each year there is typically a 75-90% retention rate for students who take band in fifth grade and sign up the following year. This is quite a bit higher than the national average reports Bredwell.
Band classes are taught by grade level so that students can remain with others of similar skill sets. Students also generally perform by grade level as well for the same reason. There are a couple of exceptions. During concerts, there is a mass-band finale where all grade levels will perform together. Participation in the Memorial Day parade consists of seventh and eighth grade students. This parade is the first time marching for seventh grade students so it’s nice for older students to help them out. This past February’s band festival also combined seventh and eighth grade students so there would be a representation of every instrument. This year’s eighth grade band is very small due to the pandemic.
It is not too late for an incoming sixth grade student next year to sign up for the band. Saxophone is full but there are openings for all the other instruments. Information about beginning band and orchestra can be found here. Parents can call 616-987-2800 to sign up. Those interested in learning more about Lowell Middle School Band can check out their website.
Photos courtesy of Kate Bredwell and used with permission.