by Carrie Kirk
Holly May (aka Ms. May) is very humble, self-effacing even. But she loves what she does and is great at it. And now she has the plaque on her wall to prove it.
Ms. May is the band director at Westlane Middle School, one of the three schools that feed into the powerhouse of North Central High School. Ms. May has called her band room, with its adjacent cave-like office, “home” for close to 15 years.
Respected by her peers, her students and Washington Township families, Ms. May is a teacher who, most of all, is all about her kids and the beautiful music they make together.
The month of May is a frenetic time. We are assessing, celebrating and squeezing in every last minute leading up to the last day of the academic calendar. Harried and even desperate, we are busy going on end-of-year field trips, funneling the waves of permission slips and summer enrichment enrollment forms and trying to figure out if another “I love my teacher” coffee mug is really what a teacher needs at the end of a long year of good teaching.
One of the celebrations -- my oldest son's band concert -- hit smack-dab in the middle of such a week. But I have to admit, I love a band concert. And full disclosure: I am the person at a football game's half-time who foregoes the long lines at the restroom or concession stand, instead remaining in the stands to watch the marching band performance. I am that person. So happily I stacked the school papers and decided to think about teacher thank-you gifts on another day, and we headed over to the school for the concert.
It featured the three bands from each grade level in addition to “The Blast from the Past” band -- a collaborative effort featuring parents, teachers, former students, aunts, uncles, etc. who play an instrument and the crazy-good Jazz Band. Of course I was impressed by the talent. I was floored by the enthusiasm, both by the student musicians and the audience. But more than that, I was inspired by the performing students in their black pants and blue tops, watching this generation that’s put in the time and energy to get better at their instrument and their collective sound as a large group.
Science stands on the cutting edge of breakthrough research concerning how the brain works. Because of improved technology, experts can now watch the mind creating an endless network of dendrites (maps of learning) and witness neurons continuously firing, all supporting the learning process.
It is now a widely held belief, based on scientific evidence, that learning music activates various areas of the brain. It synchronizes the mind for learning at a fast pace while simultaneously stretching the memory to a more pronounced level of retention. Music enhances cognitive learning. It also assists growth in many areas of human development such as motivation, social skills, time management and aesthetic appreciation.
Research has shown that the study of music has a direct relationship to a student's ability to reason, think creatively, make decisions and solve problems. Grade point averages are comparatively higher for students learning to play an instrument, and one who plays an instrument in an academic setting is more apt to graduate from high school than a one who has never played an instrument.
Those studies and the statistics that support them are all well and good. They're great. But as I read up on the benefits of music instruction and sat down to talk with Ms. May, what struck me was the community and place that band can provide young adults during a time when both are so essential to a student's happiness and purpose.
Our kids live in an age where most everything is at their instant disposal. Want an answer to a problem? Ask Google. Need a bite to eat? Hit a drive-thru. Want to buy an assortment of things in one place? Shop Target -- or Amazon.com, and never leave your house, or your couch, for that matter.
So it’s quite a feat to give young adults the opportunity to put down their phones, pick up their instruments and practice, practice, practice as a group, so that in three months’ time (which in the age of nanosecond technology might seem like a lifetime to them) they can be applauded for a piece they perform as a group. No matter what the decade, that is and always will be an amazing feat.
May explains, “To feel so many emotions because of the music you play together and then make others who are in the audience feel -- that is a great thing.”
Not all kids in the band program find it to be their home base. Some take band and learn an instrument, but they have a home in athletics or theater. Others choose band as their elective but find their home base outside of a specific school activity.
To Ms. May, that's just fine. There is a place for everyone in band.
“At Westlane, we are a snapshot of the world. The diversity is amazing. In band, the kids believe in what I can offer them, and we have built a great music tradition at our school,” she explains.
She gets it because she was one of those band kids growing up. Before formally being a part of the band program at Wayne Township’s Fulton Jr. High School in the seventh grade, she wanted to play trumpet. She convinced her parents that she was serious about her quest when she searched in The Trader (the print publication equivalent of today’s Craigslist) for used horn. Eventually she signed a rental contract for one at Paige's music rental and took private lessons at $5 a pop. It was then that she found her place in a musical world.
Ms. May went on to play in prestigious Ben Davis High School Marching Band and later studied Music Education at IU, even earning her Masters at the University of Indianapolis.
As for the plaque on her wall, it was a gift from the graduating class of eighth graders in appreciation of Ms. May. It had the following quote from Albert Einstein inscribed on it: “Try not to become a person of success but rather a person of value.”
At one point in our conversation, I asked Ms. May what her goals were for her students. She shifted in seat and launched into a long list, stopping only when she saw me madly scribbling, trying to keep up. She laughed and asked, “Too much?”
You tell me. Ms. May wants to make a connection with every kid. She wants to provide a place where students can all be part of a group, where they can experience success. She wants each kid to be valued. At the bottom of the plaque, the graduating Westlane class also inscribed “You are a person of value and you taught us well.”
Think of having a snapshot of the world look at you and recognize your worth and gifts. Life surely can't get any more melodic than that.
To her and ALL our teachers, especially those who educate in arts disciplines, I and Sky Blue Window thank you. We hope you have a wonderful summer.