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Music education is... alive in Buffalo as urban and suburban unite

Nick Lippa

Music is…healing. Fun. Unifying. These were some statements made by nearly 200 students Monday night at a collaborative music concert at Kenmore East High School. Bands from Hutch Tech, Buffalo Performing Arts and Cheektowaga Central High School came together to perform and stress the importance of music education, especially in urban settings.

Band director Phil Aguglia has been teaching at Kenmore East for 27 years, but as a proud Hutch Tech alum, he is often looking for ways to work with students in the Buffalo Public Schools.

“I always wanted to be a part of the Buffalo Schools,” Aguglia said. “I’m a product of the Buffalo Schools. I owe who I am today to the teachers I had in those schools and I really wanted to be able to contribute somewhere along the line.”

That’s why Aguglia engineered 'A Celebration of Harmony in our Community,' a collaborative concert between urban and suburban schools that sends a singular message—music education is vital everywhere.

“Maybe this right now is my way of being able to give back,” Aguglia said. “Because I still have always felt a void like I haven’t really done my fair share.”

Each band performed a few pieces in front of the other schools. It gave students like Hutch Tech sophomore student Kelsey Vegas a chance to meet and hear new musicians.

“I feel like I know the schools better now because I get to see them and hear what they’re telling us through music,” Vegas said.

Aguglia brought in Capital University Wind Ensemble Director Jeff Gershman from Ohio to work with each band. Gershman met Aguglia five years ago when he came to work with a high school honor band at the college. At first, Gershman thought the distance would be a problem.

“And then I met him and I’m like, ‘Oh I totally get it. He’s just a dynamo. He’s just so sincere and so in it for the kids that I was like instantly smitten. I’m like, ‘You and I are going to be friends,’” Gershman said.

After each band played individually, Gershman conducted all four bands as one performing Frank Ticheli’s ‘Joy.’

“So to get to know them kind of on an individual basis and know their personalities and then see them collaborate with 200 of their peers is fantastic,” Gershman said. “Where else can you do that? You can’t really bring in like out of theater or have art. It’s a very specific music thing on a piece that everyone prepared separately and then some guy from out of town comes in and yet we can make music. We can make an artistic statement in the limited rehearsal time and share that with an audience. It’s incredibly gratifying.”

Gershman credited the each band director for prepping students in advance.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“It’s easy to be the guy they bring in and wave the stick. But I really feel like I’m on the podium with them because I’m just the one that is lucky enough to be able to conduct all of their kids. I don’t solely deserve the credit. It really is everyone around here doing such great work,” he said.

Musicians played in the aisles as they filled the entire auditorium. Posted up on the walls were pictures of students like Kelsey Vegas who held signs finishing the phrase ‘Music is…’

“Music is a way to express yourself and kind a like a way to not be bored,” Vegas said.

The ‘Music is…’ initiative was started by Music is Art.

“We let the experts tell us about the effects on the brain. We just know that it’s fun and important. So we make sure to bring the awareness to that aspect,” said Music is Art Executive Director Tracy Fletcher.

Fletcher added they have used the initiative in the past on social media to raise awareness.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“My one word answer is oxygen. Couldn’t live without it,” Fletcher said.

“The spirit of life,” Hutch Tech senior Amario Marshall said.

“Music is a community. It’s really just a big community of people together,” Kenmore East Freshman Andrew Wolfe said.

“To me, music is universal,” Hutch Tech junior Austen Fiannaca said.

And in the back of the auditorium, Buffalo Public Schools Music Supervisor James Schwanz stood next to students performing the concert’s finale with his own ‘Music Is…’

“Music is family to me,” Schwanz said.

“I was raised in a musical family. I have a father who was a pianist. Grandmother played organ. Music was always highly valued. It wasn’t everything, but it was part of my life. It was always part of a very holistic upbringing along with athletics. I grew up in the country so there was a lot of agriculture. It was just part of making me a well-rounded person. So I would never say I’m just an athlete or just in to agriculture or planting. But I can also say I’m a musician. And I just feel like it’s given me an opportunity to express myself in a way that’s more personal than some of the other activities I’m involved in,” Schwanz said.

When it comes to better supporting music education in the city, Schwanz said teachers are their own best advocates.

“They need to make sure that they are practicing the best practices. They need to make sure that they are working within their community and that’s not just within the districts community but within the school community,” he said. “They have to be integral to the overall success of their buildings. And when they continue to be integral to the overall success of their building, it’s hard to get rid of them. And it’s hard to not want them. So I always tell my teachers that you are really your own best advocate.”

As the final piece concluded, Schwanz had a big smile on his face.

“Regardless of where you live throughout the area, whether you’re an urban district or a suburban district, when you listen to all these ensembles, there’s something the same,” he said. “Horns all sound the same. They’re all played the same way. They all sound beautiful when they are giving the opportunity to learn in the right way.”

Opportunity was major concern for some of the Hutch Tech students, who have band director Amy Steiner teaching in the building but can’t get band in their schedule at the moment. Students like Fiannaca are frustrated seeing some of the suburban bands.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

“It makes me feel like we are being pushed aside, the city schools,” Fiannaca said. “We could be just as good or even better. But like, we don’t have the equipment to get us there. And they just ignore it. Hutch Tech is right by City Hall and they don’t do anything to help us with funding and get more equipment that actually works and doesn’t fall apart when you’re half way through a performance.”

Marshall added the event itself was nerve-wracking.

“It’s definitively a momentous occasion,” Marshall said. “All of the schools coming together to pretty much get the word out that music needs funding in New York State. It’s been a problem for years. We haven’t had enough funding. This is the opportunity for us to get our foot through the door in possibly having that come true.”

Part of what brought the community together for the concert is the stigma Buffalo has developed with cutting arts programs. Schwanz said they’ve actually added more arts teachers recently.

“Through our hard work, we’ve actually grown by 18 teachers in the past four years. And we project that that’s going to continue to happen,” Schwanz said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to apply for and receive significant grant funding recently that’s putting instruments in children’s hands in a way that we haven’t had in years. This coming year will be the first year that we’re going to have at least two days or more of instrumental teachers. So we’re going to continue to raise the rigor of our student performance levels. Going to make sure that they’re continuing to participate in ECMEA and NYSSMA festivals. But with the funding that we’ve had recently, I think that we are going to see a continuing trend upwards for instrumental music.”

“I really do believe you are going to continue to see jobs added. As much as there may be a stigma, we’ve been fortunate. We continue to add jobs. We continue to have the support and our teachers continue to become more highly effective in the classroom,” he said.

For now, there is optimism moving forward. Teachers like Aguglia are going to keep pushing to make sure all students in Buffalo have access to a quality music education.

“I want to see every building have a full time music teacher. I want to see the kids benefit from the expertise that the people in their lives can provide them. I want to see what we saw tonight grow,” Aguglia said.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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