HomeDistrictOpportunities galore allow students to explore musicality throughout CUSD

Opportunities galore allow students to explore musicality throughout CUSD

Published April 2, 2024


From transitional kindergarten students haphazardly banging on xylophones to a high schooler soloing in the winter concert, the Carmel Unified School District holds a number of unique traditions and opportunities in and out of school that encourage students to explore their instrumental talents and to grow as musicians.

In the fourth grade, CUSD children are required to choose an instrument — flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, percussion kit, violin, or cello — that they will focus on for their following fifth-grade year and, for some, many thrilling years to come.

River elementary instrumentalists play along to Erinn Barca-Hall’s conducting gestures in the 2023 band concert. (courtesy of BRUCE HAASE)

“That’s brain development!” exclaims Carmel River Elementary School music teacher Erinn Barca-Hall. “The connection that your brain makes to play and perform music, it’s one of the only activities you do where it works both sides of your brain, both your analytical when you’re reading music, but also that creative side of your brain.” 

Music is explored at River, Tularcitos and Captain Cooper elementary schools, starting in TK for a lot of the hand percussion instruments like metallophones and glockenspiels before recorders and ukuleles are introduced. In the fifth grade, students start the instrumental program.  

“It involves a lot of play, and children learn things naturally through play and discovery rather than drills,” explains Tularcitos music teacher Wendy Crawford, describing the Orff Schulwerk approach. “It’s a more organic process for learning.” 

River and Tular instrumentalists are given instructions in 50-minute periods during the school day, twice a week, once in a combined orchestra and once in their small group like woodwind, brass or strings.

Senior Abigail Kim performs a solo on her tenor saxophone in the 2024 Visual and Performing Arts concert. (courtesy of ABIGAIL KIM)

Senior Abigail Kim recalls how her time at River allowed her to experience many instruments like the violin before finding her true calling with the clarinet in the fifth grade. Kim is part of the Concert Band, Jazz Workshop class and Jazz Ensemble with music instructor Brian Handley at CHS, and she has achieved second chair at Central Coast Section Honor Band. 

The district festivals in March, put on for Music in Our Schools Month at Sunset Center in downtown Carmel, involve the whole CUSD music program from elementary to high school and showcase the talent and growth in musicians and singers as they reach more technical levels.

“The high school jazz band knocks their socks off every year,” says Crawford about her elementary students. “Just to hear how good Mr. Handley’s ensembles are, and it’s magical because the light bulb comes on for a lot of them, things start to click, and then the rest of the year it takes off. They really become musicians.”

Tularcitos students exuberantly showcase their musical talents in their 2023 winter band concert. (courtesy of BRUCE HAASE)

Carmel Middle School has a similarly music-rich environment. Its music program is made up of Cougar Cub band, for students with less instrumental experience, and concert band and string orchestra for more intermediate students. Mimicking the high school programs, there is a jazz ensemble for concert band and a Singer-Songwriters’ Club led by teacher Bryn Loosely, who is also a recording artist. 

“Between the parents, students, teachers and the administration, I feel blessed to teach in a district that thinks so fondly of the arts and values it so much,” shares the CMS instrumental teacher Sarah Wadsworth. 

In addition to excellent mentors, fundraising reinforces the music programs. The Music Boosters is a nonprofit organization that works in synergy with the district to help fund CUSD music programs, supporting everything from instrument repairs to handing out tickets.

Handley conducts the Carmel High string orchestra in the 2023 winter concert with a flourish. (courtesy of BRUCE HAASE)

“The music teachers go above and beyond and put in so much extra time for activities like traveling for [Central Coast Section honor groups], pit orchestra or organizing the Heritage Festival,” says Marni Flagg, president of the Music Boosters. “The little bit of time that I can put in for the Music Boosters to help them organize anything is time well spent.”

At the high school level, opportunities come in many different forms like the after-school Jazz Ensemble, pep band during the fall football games, pit orchestra, the Singer-Songwriters’ Guild, the Band Show, guitar class and others like Digital Music and music theory. 

“I’ve definitely learned more of the theory side of music like how to construct a song or how to improve a solo in Jazz Band,” says Thomas Gardner, a junior multi-instrumentalist who dabbles in piano, clarinet and alto saxophone. 

Handley describes the growth he sees in his high school students who stick with the music program throughout their high school career.

“For some people, it’s getting more involved in the behind-the-scenes stuff in leadership,” describes Handley. “Other people excel at performance. Others diversify and start playing multiple instruments and multiple roles in different groups. That’s one of the most gratifying parts of the job.”

A full CHS orchestra and choir combine to create a breathtaking symphony. (courtesy of BRUCE HAASE)

Students’ involvement in music does not stop outside of school, with many in programs like Youth Music Monterey County or qualifying for honor groups such as the regional CCS or at a state level.

Junior violinist and pianist Elizabeth Chan describes how she was thinking about quitting violin between elementary and middle school, but guidance from her Tularcitos music teacher, Mr. Short, inspired her to continue. She has qualified for CCS Orchestra for the past four years. 

The ultimate goal in their musical journey for many CUSD musicians is to get better and have fun while doing it. Music is ingrained in their lives and provides a quality of richness that is hard to give up. 

“I really want to continue to participate in music in college,” Kim continues. “Whether it be marching band, orchestras or jazz bands, I fully intend to keep music in my life.”


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