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Barberton jazzes up education with music

By John Published: April 19, 2011
Angela Hackman, 15, of Barberton watches as sextet member Christopher Scott (right) of Cleveland marks her music. Members of the Brad Wagner Sextet worked with Barberton jazz music students as part of the first Barberton City Schools jazz festival on Monday in Akron. Students rehearsed in the auditorium of the downtown Akron Public Library. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)

By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer

Barberton's eighth-grade jazz band practiced standards such as Take the A Train and All of Me with professional musicians Monday morning at the Akron-Summit County Public Library auditorium.

Members of the Brad Wagner Sextet coached the middle school and high school students before they all played at the district's first jazz festival Monday evening.

Band leader and saxophonist Brad Wagner taught members of the saxophone section how to use their tongues to make a note short, but not too short.

Short notes can sound like ''dits'' or ''dats'' or ''dots.''

The students were playing a weak ''dit'' that faded out too fast.

What they needed was a
full-throated ''Dot!'' so the audience would hear the whole note and appreciate its pitch and sound.

''One, two, three . . . DOT!'' Wagner said, snapping his fingers.

They tried a few more times and then they got it. They were too nervous to say it out loud, but Wagner could tell that they'd heard the difference.

''I could see it on their faces,'' Wagner said. ''And that's a wonderful thing. If they can feel it, then the audience will be able to feel it.''

At a time when arts classes are threatened by budget cuts, Barberton has expanded its offerings, transforming jazz bands from after-school clubs into classes in the middle school and high school, beginning in the fall of 2009.

Unlike other districts, there are no ''pay-to-participate'' fees at Barberton for music, and the jazz classes were folded into the schedule without hiring more staff or buying equipment.

''We're a district that has 68 percent poverty, so a big part of our effort is to get the kids to school so they can learn,'' said Celeste M. Wagner, the Highland Middle School band director and wife of band leader Brad Wagner.

''We understand and the central office understands that if the kids are motivated by band, or by art, or by drama, or by athletics, it's going to get them to school.''

She got a $1,000 grant from PPG Industries in Barberton and some help from the band boosters to stage the jazz festival and bring in the Brad Wagner Sextet for the day to work with eighth-graders and the high school students.

She doesn't have a lot of students who play piano, so MarQuis Brown, a 19-year-old Barberton senior, played piano for each group of students.

He started out playing classical piano, then moved to gospel at his church.

''I was on YouTube and somebody told me of a guy named Art Tatum. And Oscar Peterson,'' Brown said. ''So I listened to them and after that: I've got to learn jazz. I have to learn jazz.''

He said learning music made it easier for him to learn math.

''Once you learn how to read music, you dissect the whole note,'' Brown said. ''If it's a dotted half note, it actually gets three beats. You can use music and math to help you dissect problems. I used to be terrible at math, but now math is fairly easy for me.''

Tammy Seiler has seen the same thing with her son, Lee, an eighth-grader who was playing the drums Monday morning. He needed math tutoring when he was younger.

''In elementary school, he struggled a lot,'' she said. ''Since he's been in junior high school, he's A's and B's.''

Eighth-grader Michael Hodgen, who plays tuba in concert band and trombone in jazz band, said music gets him through his day.

''First period, I can't wait until second period to play band,'' he said. ''Seventh period, I can't wait until eighth. It's just something to look forward to when I go to school.''

The relationship between arts and learning has intrigued scientists and educators working together to apply brain research to education.

The current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Mind, Brain and Education is devoted to the topic.

While researchers caution against exaggerating or oversimplifying the role of arts in learning, the editors of the issue argue that it's worthy of study.

''The awe of the creation of art cannot be diminished but only enhanced by new knowledge,'' say the issue's authors, Susan H. Magsamen and Antonio M. Battro. ''Similarly, knowing what a star is made of does not change the fact that we still wish upon it as it shoots through the sky.''

Brad Wagner said he enjoys seeing kids learn how to express themselves in jazz in ways that they aren't used to when playing in a concert band.

''The jazz stuff is different than what they're hearing in concert band: all the clarinets need to sound like one clarinet, all the trumpets need to sound like one trumpet,'' Wagner said.

''In the jazz ensemble, you want to hear the individual players.''

That's one of the things he worked on Monday with the students, getting them to play louder and with more confidence.

''Light bulbs go off in their head,'' Wagner said. ''Then everyone starts playing louder, fuller and all of a sudden, the whole band sounds better.''

John Higgins can be reached at 330-996-3792 or Read the education blog at



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