The Comprehensive District Design, a district overhaul intended to promote equity and financial stability, integrated instrumental music into the regular curriculum for fifth graders in 2021. The class is in addition to a general music class, and students are pulled out of their classes to learn their instruments in groups.

In fourth grade, students can choose an instrument from band or orchestra. They can pick the guitar, depending on the school. 

The program is free to families. 

Prior to the CDD, funding for band and orchestra came down to principals’ discretion at individual schools and outside fundraising. The CDD allocates district funding for the classes to run, including instruments, instrument maintenance and music teachers. 

Benefits of learning an instrument 

Former school board director Kimberly Caprini was instrumental in the inclusion of music instruction in the CDD. Her mother was a music teacher, she played instruments, and her children played in school ensembles during their time at MPS.

“In my mind it just made sense for elementary age kids to have an opportunity if they wanted to play an instrument, and again because of how it benefits their other classes,” Caprini said.

Research show that playing an instrument engages all parts of the brain, improves fine motor skills, employs the peripheral nervous system, and students who play instruments test higher in school.

Beyond the cognitive and academic benefits, musical ensembles are supportive communities and a safe place at school. Rachel Wixson, who teaches fifth grade instrumental music for MPS online students, said that the excitement of a “music day” at school gets her son out of bed in the morning.

“I think that standing on its own it should be a no-brainer, a part of our daily education,” Wixson said.

While it’s common for schools around Minnesota to offer band and orchestra starting in fourth or fifth grade, at MPS, students are required to play an instrument in fifth grade. Buffy Larson, an instrumental music specialist at Las Estrellas and Green Central, appreciates that students who otherwise might not have picked up an instrument have the opportunity to do just that in her classroom.

“I’ve had two different students who have said ‘really, do I have to do that?’ and I say ‘yeah, it’s kind of like math, you don’t have a choice,’” Larson said. “Both of those students have come around and enjoyed it.”

They will rock you 

While it varies from school to school, students mostly pick their instruments in fourth grade or the beginning of fifth after a teacher presents the options. Many have already seen older students perform for their school and have an idea of which instruments are available.

There is also a week-long summer camp at Kenwood Elementary for students to try out different instruments before choosing one.

Larson has a dedicated classroom at each school for her instrumental music classes, each decked out with sound-enhancing pads. Other teachers, she said, push a cart full of supplies to different rooms for their lessons. 

Students leave their classes for their lessons, which start out as small groups with their same instruments and grow into full ensemble rehearsals. These rehearsals culminate into one or two performances per year. 

Some of Wixson’s students’ favorite pieces are “We Will Rock You” and “Jingle Bells.” Larson’s students played an aptly named mashup of the “Jaws” theme and “Baby Shark” called “Fun with Sharks.” 

“Once the kids know five notes and they can play “We Will Rock You,” Wixson said. “Just seeing their eyes and being really proud and excited and all these loud, squeaky instruments, that might be my favorite band moment.”

A ton of instruments 

Prior to the CDD, Larson’s salary was at the discretion of principals who she said valued band enough to pay for it. Money for instruments and maintenance mostly came from grants or even her own pocketbook. Now the district covers these costs.

“There are some people who would justify [the cost of instrumental music] by saying ‘oh, music increases math scores and music teaches us how to work together towards a goal,” Larson said. But what is amazing about it is music is being made by students who might not have chosen to do it or might not have had the opportunity to do it.”

The district estimates spending about $1.7 million in ongoing costs for the fifth grade instrumental music program,  which is about 0.34% of the district’s overall budget. Money for instrument maintenance, including broken instruments and general upkeep, comes from the district arts funds.

Students who play bigger instruments like these drums and cellos have instruments at school and at home so they can practice and rehearse in school without carrying their instrument. Photo by Anna Koenning

“The district bought a ton of instruments– I mean a ton of brand new instruments, and they are pretty much all in use now,” Wixson said.

Every fifth grade student has access to an instrument at home to practice and at school for lessons, because bigger instruments like the cello or bass are too big to carry to and from school, especially for students who ride the bus.

And when one fifth grade instrumental music teacher needs a spare saxophone or violin for a student, another teacher is quick to fill that need when they have an extra. An inventory system ensures that the instruments eventually make it back to their home school. 

“We have some pretty old instruments in the district too,” Wixson said. “We don’t want to throw anything away that we can’t fix up a little.”

When Larson had an unexpectedly large baritone horn section this year, she set out to find some baritones. A friend did some research and found a seller in Maine who had baritones to spare, and Larson connected with him. As it turns out, the seller had grown up a block away from Las Estrellas, where Larson teaches, and his father played trumpet in the Minnesota Orchestra before retiring to work at MPS. Larson got a deal on the baritones, and they even came with mouthpieces and cases.

Larson has also noticed a significant uptick in flute players in the past few years. It took her a while to put together that the increase was an effect of Lizzo’s influence.

Instructing within equity and diversity 

Requiring instrumental music and providing the actual instruments means that the ensembles are just as diverse as MPS is. American orchestras are severely lacking in Black and Latino representation– according to a 2016 survey by the League of American Orchestras, 2.5% of musicians are Latino and 1.8% are Black.

“The diversity piece is great because students will bring in their real experience and their music, and so they teach me songs,” Larson said.

She added that the songs her students teach her aren’t only cultural, but sometimes age-related, like music from a video game or pop stars like Lady Gaga.

Larson works at two Spanish immersion schools, though she doesn’t speak much Spanish, and some of her students speak limited English. 

“They can do an amazing job, they understand at a really high level about music… and some of them are just learning English,” she said. “These students, all of them can communicate through music at a pretty high level.”

The beauty of all students playing instruments at no cost to their families is not lost on Larson.

“I would say that making fifth grade part of the curriculum is an extraordinary move,” Larson said. “It’s offering a chance for every child to try something they might not otherwise have been able to do, may not have known that it’s something they’d want to do. No child is excluded.”

Gaps in the pathways

The problem with the fifth grade instrumental music program is that it begins and ends in fifth grade. While the CDD regulates students’ transitions from elementary to middle to high school with designated “pathways,” there is not necessarily a pathway for fifth graders to continue playing their instruments in middle school.

“It’s really awesome that every fifth grader gets to have this instrumental experience, but depending on their middle school will depend on whether or not they can continue on that instrument,” Wixson said.

While about eight of the district’s ten middle schools offer band, Minneapolis Schools Voices can only confirm that two offer orchestra.

The district did not respond to multiple requests about which middle schools offer band and which offer orchestra. The above information was gathered from a combination of school websites, phone calls to schools and conversations with teachers.

Six of the eleven high schools at MPS provide orchestra and seven provide band.

These gaps in the pathways mean that a student who plays the viola in fifth grade at Webster Elementary could not continue the viola at their pathway school of Northeast Middle because the school doesn’t offer orchestra. That same student could play in orchestra at their designated high school, Edison.

To Wixson, the gap in the pathway between fifth grade and high school is an equity issue. Students who want to continue with their instrument while attending a middle school that doesn’t offer the program have to rent or buy their own instrument and pay for private lessons.

At the high school level, Wixson’s husband and Southwest instrumental music teacher Reid Wixson said that the gap in orchestra between fifth grade and high school hurts the high school ensembles. Most of his students maintained their orchestral skills through middle school with a private teacher, youth orchestra or even a charter school that offers orchestra. 

“We should definitely have a K-12 type of vision where they have their elementary music classes and in fourth or fifth grade they have the option to explore an instrument and have those same options on the next level to keep that consistent and equitable for all the kids,” Rachel Wixson said.

Consistency throughout elementary to high school is the norm for nearby districts’ orchestra programs. 

“If we want to compete with St. Louis Park or somewhere else, we have to give these same opportunities to our Minneapolis kids who deserve it as well,” she said.