Reid Wixson started his dream job nine years ago teaching music at Southwest High School, creating community and encouraging equity in the classroom. His classroom, which is lined with instruments and photographs of diverse musicians, has become a safe haven for queer students and a comfortable place for the young musicians.
Wixson was nominated for Teacher of the Year in 2023 and won the Minnesota Music Educator of the Year award for the 2019-2020 year.
The CDD, six-day school periods and funding shortcomings have threatened the Southwest music program’s success, but families fundraise like wild around here to support the band and orchestra.
The dream job
Wixson decided to become a music teacher when he first conducted his own ninth grade band in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. His teacher had a tradition of allowing each student to conduct the band in playing “Happy Birthday” on their birthdays, and Wixson was hooked after he conducted the ensemble. Wixson gives each of his students the opportunity to conduct the band in four-part chorales.
After attending the St. Olaf Christmas Festival, Wixson decided that he had to attend St. Olaf to be a part of that music program. The dream, which was inspired by the early 2000s show Boston Public, was to eventually become an urban music teacher.
Wixson and his wife taught at a school in India before choosing Minneapolis for a home because his wife grew up here and its central location made commuting to the suburbs easier. At the time MPS wasn’t hiring music teachers, so he taught band at several suburban schools before landing the Southwest instrumental music position. His wife, Rachel, also teaches instrumental music at MPS.
“It took a while to get that dream urban job,” Wixson said. “But once we got it, it was great.”
Wixson curates a safe and comfortable environment for students, especially LGBTQ+ students, in his classroom. When he first started teaching at Southwest, Wixson said that the band and orchestra environments had an “us versus them” mentality.
“We’ve made it more of a collaborative community and less of a competitive community. Of course when people hear about our classroom, they talk about the ‘bamily,’” Wixson said.
Wixson encourages this “bamily,” or band family, environment by dedicating class time to get-to-know-you games and mental breathers. On Fridays after a stressful week, he reads children’s books to the students for mental breaks. He throws pizza parties in the classroom when there are pep band events.
Queer students flock to the classroom as well. Wixson said that his former student teacher, who is queer, was shocked at the sheer number of trans, non-binary and other queer students in Wixson’s room.
“[They were] like, ‘I can’t believe how many out kids there are in your classroom, and people are so comfortable, and how many trans kids are in your room!’” Wixson said with a laugh. “I’ve tried to figure out what I’m doing that has made that situation, but I really can’t figure it out.”
Haruka Yukioka, the student teacher, graduated high school in a small, conservative town in Wisconsin in 2016 and student taught in Wixson’s classroom during the spring of 2022. They were impressed at how students openly talked about their queer relationships, something Yukioka didn’t feel comfortable doing at their high school without ensuring that they were safe.
“It made me a little jealous, honestly, as a queer educator now, I wish I had that experience,” Yukioka said. “I was really happy to be part of a space where the kids had that. That’s so cool.”
Yukioka said that the welcoming and respectful atmosphere that Wixson provides in the classroom encourages the openness that they saw.
“From the moment you walk through the door and see all those handprints on the wall, these kids are part of a family,” they said. “They’re part of a program that Reid has carried and I feel like the inclusivity and acceptance really stems from that attitude of ‘you matter here.’”
Wixson hangs up pictures of each composer they discuss and play in class, which includes many LGBTQ+ composers and composers of color.
There’s always a hot beverage available in Wixson’s room. The classroom is a gathering space for the musicians outside of their class time, partly because their lockers line Wixson’s office.
“I have coffee and tea and hot cocoa available upon request for kids who need a cup of coffee, need a cup of tea. A lot of kids sit in the chair and cry about whatever is stressing them out, and a cup of tea is usually the go-to for that,” Wixson said. “I’ve got a lot of mugs.”
A day in the life
Wixson starts his day with jazz ensemble at 7 :30 in the morning. Then ninth and tenth graders roll in to band class at 8:30. Since these younger musicians are less experienced, they focus more on technique than on deeper musical conversations.
“[The ninth and tenth grade students] come with their own baggage, whether they’ve had a rough night the previous night, or maybe they’re super dialed in on the music, like that’s kind of all over the board,” Wixson said. “That’s what makes it really fun, right? Because you’re constantly trying to get kids excited.”
The eleventh and twelfth grade band follows, and these students are very focused on the music. They play more challenging pieces and spend more time discussing music theory and music history.
After that ensemble, Wixson teaches an asynchronous, online IB music class. These students already participate in band, orchestra, or choir, and Wixson described the class as a “future music major class” for many students. Though not every student in the group will major in music in college, those who do will have an easier time freshman year because of the lessons they learned in the IB class, according to Wixson. The students are writing their own music, some of which the orchestra performed at their last concert.
Wixson’s final class of the day is orchestra. Though he took string methods classes in college, Wixson is primarily a clarinet player and a band teacher. When he started at Southwest nearly a decade ago, teaching orchestra for the first time was a challenge. While musical concepts are constant regardless of the instrument, Wixson didn’t know string techniques like finger placement and bowing. He credits colleagues and his young children, who play the Suzuki string method, with teaching him orchestra technique.
The pathway problem
The CDD hit orchestra programs hard. By turning Lake Harriet into a K-5 school instead of K-8, the CDD cut the school’s middle school orchestra program and did not continue it elsewhere. Very few MPS middle schools have orchestra programs.
Though students now have access to instrumental learning in fifth grade, most orchestra students and some band students’ pathways lead them to middle schools that don’t offer their desired music program. Unless students take private lessons between fifth grade and high school, they fend for themselves if they want to continue playing their instruments. The program loses many musicians because they don’t have a way to keep up with their instruments.
“If they don’t touch their instruments in middle school, we’ve kind of lost them. That’s a recruitment problem for sure that we have, especially with more transient students who maybe moved schools because of the CDD,” Wixson said.
Some students who don’t have a pathway with their instrument sought out other ways to maintain or grow their skills into high school.
“All of the students in the orchestra class sustained themselves somehow during middle school, whether that was private lessons or being in a youth orchestra here in the city, or they went to a different middle school,” Wixson said. “At Southwest we have students coming from charter middle schools that would have potentially had orchestra.”
Before COVID and the CDD, Wixson said there were about 200 total band and orchestra students. Today there are 120 total enrolled in those classes.
The switch to a six-period day from seven periods two years ago also hurt the band and orchestra programs. Graduation requirements include art, gym and health credits, and colleges want to see that students took language classes, so with those classes in addition to the core curriculum, many students opt to take a semester-long art credit instead of the year-long band or orchestra.
Students who choose to take band or orchestra in addition to a language, gym and health have to take the latter online, which requires immense organization and individual initiative. The students make this decision before they enter high school– as eighth graders.
Furthermore, the seven-day period allowed for more flexibility with class schedules. Around 20 of Wixson’s former students had to drop band because the class was scheduled at the same time as another class they were taking.
“There’s only one alto saxophone player in the ninth grade band right now, because four of them are in Japanese Three,” he said.
Wixson spent his supply budget for the year–around $490– on a bus to the State Fair in August. Instruments and music cost a whole lot more than that.
To fill the gap, the band and orchestra rely on fundraising. He buys and maintains school instruments, which costs several thousand dollars per year, and spends about $1000 per year on music scores. To supplement the budget, he acquires music composed prior to 1912, which is now free due to expiring copyrights.
Buying school instruments is an equity issue. Not only is it difficult and dangerous to carry a cello or a bass to school, but buying or renting an instrument is not feasible for many MPS families. Having a school supply of instruments lowers the barrier for entry in band and orchestra classes.
“When the district funds our classroom,” Wixson said. “Really the only thing they fund in the room is me.”
Selecting and actually acquiring music for his ensembles to play is a key aspect of Wixson’s job. He usually chooses the music a year in advance.
“That’s probably the most important choice I make,” Wixson said.
Not only is sheet music a core part of the band’s curriculum, but Wixson uses music selection as an opportunity to provide students with what he calls “mirrors and windows.”
“[For] every kid in a class, a curriculum, should have a mirror of their own culture in their curriculum,” Wixson said. “For me that culture is Mozart clarinet concerto because that’s where I got hooked on classical music.”
For others, that mirror is William Grant Still’s Danzas de Panamá or Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1. To white students, composers like Still and Price offer windows into another person’s culture and experiences. Wixson has spent thousands of dollars in music at Southwest to diversify the sheet music library since band and orchestral music is dominated by white men.
“The music industry in general is built to sustain that culture and so it takes work to combat that,” Wixson said. “When students can see themselves in the composer, they can see themselves in the music that the composer is conveying and the message that the composer is conveying.”
Wixson is co-founder and co-organizer of the Black Composer Revival Consortium, where he facilitates music teachers in buying Black composers’ works directly from them instead of from a publisher.
“It’s a massive shift in music education happening,” he said.