Most of the eighth-grade students in Jeff Walton’s band class at Uncommon Schools Ocean Hill Collegiate hadn’t picked up an instrument before seventh grade.
But you’d never know it from the sounds emanating from Walton’s band room one morning as students were rehearsing for their Spring Concert, a program of songs from New Orleans.
Standing in front of the band with his saxophone, Walton tells the students, “Phrase it the way I did. More accents, more bounce.”
With a few more tries, the entire class is playing a swinging version of the rock classic, “Your Mama Don’t Dance.” The band sounds tight, as if they’ve been playing together for years.
“Our program immerses kids in music,” Walton said, “And I am always amazed at how fast they can learn.”
Ocean Hill Collegiate is one of 23 Brooklyn schools that are part of the Uncommon Schools network of public charter schools. Uncommon serves over 8,000 students in grades K-12 in Brooklyn. Last month, 100 percent of its high school seniors were accepted to colleges from across the country, including Ivy League universities like Brown, Dartmouth, Cornell and Columbia.
When students enter seventh grade at Ocean Hill Collegiate, they start an instrument in one of four small-group classes: brass, saxophone, percussion, and keyboard/guitar. Students receive guided practice three days per week with an expert teacher, and Walton said this type of instruction can be as effective as the more traditional model: once-a-week private lessons combined with individual practice at home.
“The small group learning with specialist teachers is what makes our program special,” Walton said, “It’s unusual in a public school. I’m grateful that we have the administrative support to make it happen and the space to have four noisy classes going at once.”
Seventh-graders also have music theory so that by the time they get to eighth grade, they are ready to read music and play in a group. And because everyone plays in band, Walton uses popular songs from funk, reggae, and R&B to engage all students.
Walton said music gives students the opportunity to “learn by doing”– practicing a new skill, listening to each other, and adjusting in real time.
“The experience of playing in a band and taking feedback in that group setting is so valuable,” Walton said. “And music is a core part of our experience as humans. Whether or not the students decide to pursue it in high school, they have gained a greater appreciation of music.”
(Ed. note: Ocean Hill Collegiate is still accepting students for fifth grade. If you are interested in applying, visit uncommonschools.org or call the school directly at 718-250-5765 and ask to speak with Office Manager, Ms. Melida Jarvis.)