Justin Ratzburg couldn’t help but be a little concerned.
Last year, Trafalgar Middle School’s band featured around 65 kids. This year nearly 200 students would be performing in two December concerts prior to the holiday break.
Ratzburg, who moved to Nelson this year from Vancouver to teach music at Trafalgar and L.V. Rogers, wasn’t sure how it would sound when so many new students made their public debuts. But that anxiety ended when the concert began.
“I was really happy with their performance. They were all practising really hard and they all played in time together, and that was really a miracle,” said Ratzburg.
“I guess I had my doubts, I had my worries. There was a chance it would completely fall apart, but they’re all good musicians. It’s a natural ability and they’ve followed through and did a great performance. I couldn’t be happier, I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Trafalgar’s band isn’t just special because it can play “Ode To Joy.” The school has made its music program mandatory and, crucially, free for all Grade 6 students as of last September.
Previously, music was optional for Trafalgar’s Grade 6 to 8 students. Parents were asked to pay $100 to cover the cost of an instrument rental, although that fee was covered by School District 8 if it was a barrier to entry.
Now Grade 6 students participate in band and, if they choose, carry on with it in Grade 7 and 8 as an elective.
Ratzburg said it’s rare for a B.C. school to make music a core subject, especially on the scale of Trafalgar’s program.
“It’s become pretty common for it to be an after or before school activity,” said Ratzburg.
But principal Paul Luck is betting music education will lead to a happier, more academically successful school.
“It’s an amazing cultural shift,” said Luck. “The kids walking around with their band instruments, it brings a lot of joy to our hearts in our school and kids are very excited about it.”
The emphasis on music education is part of what Luck describes as a renewed focus on student mental health at Trafalgar and within the district.
In November, the Ministry of Education announced a $2-million investment in school-based mental health programming. School District 8, which received $30,500 from the ministry, has hired Javier Gonzalez as a co-ordinator of school mental health and addictions while also adding counselling and intervention services.
Superintendent Christine Perkins said she believes the benefits of music education aren’t limited to academic success.
“Music has a lot of positive benefits in addition to also helping ironically with numeracy results. It helps lift depression, it helps people relate to people and build empathy.”
For Trafalgar, that mental health focus has resulted in small changes such as the addition of a spin bike room for students who need what Luck describes as a calming activity, or larger scale initiatives like the expanded music program.
Luck said accommodations have even been made to include two students with hearing disabilities in the Grade 6 band.
“What I’ve seen is once you’ve joined a band, you’ve make friends for life,” said Luck. “I see that all over our community. So I think band is an important thing for us at this school because if you are trying to model for students how to get along with each other, how to work collaboratively, then band is the perfect venue for that.”
Ratzburg said typically only a fraction of students from a grade join band. Now he’s excited for the future of music in Nelson with more kids being exposed to a music program.
“It’s quite a vision, but I think it’s an excellent way to re-amp music culture in town,” he said. “Where other band and music programs are dwindling and falling apart, this one’s getting better. It’s great.”