Filling a coastal district with music.

Lincoln City Schools: A Place for Musicians of All Stripes

Lincoln City Schools, Siletz Bay Music Festival & Lincoln City Cultural Center

Everyone has a part to play

Walking up Spyglass Ridge Road on a chilly winter night, the first thing you’ll notice isn’t the salty air coming off the beach below, or the steepness of the climb, or even the stars twinkling above the scrub brushes and pines. It’s the palatable excitement that fills the air as a crowd waits at the doors of Taft Elementary School. Just like at a professional concert, the audience is lined up outside of the venue, waiting to catch a glimpse of the band. A cheer rises as Principal Becca Bostwick opens the doors wide, ushering families inside and greeting many by name as she welcomes them to the 2019 sixth grade band and choir concert.

In the Taft Elementary gym, chairs and music stands are set in rows from the far wall to mid-court. Signs in English and Spanish indicate where each section will sit. Woodwinds are on one side and brass on another, with percussion in the back. The signs help students find their way and also help families pick seats with the best view of their young musicians. Parents, grandparents and young siblings find seats on the gym floor and climb up into the bleachers.

The gym fills quickly, with 400 family members and friends in attendance to watch 150 students perform in band and choir. The sixth grade musicians sit behind their music stands, dressed in matching black t-shirts that proclaim Music is Instrumental. Students immediately start with their first number, a resounding performance that elicits cheers, whistles and claps from the audience.

Karin Tiesl, the music program director at Taft Elementary, uses the breaks between pieces to educate the audience about what they’re seeing and hearing. Her interludes invite a richer, more inclusive experience, especially for those without a musical background. It’s almost feels like the audience is attending their first band class, with the sixth grade musicians as the veterans showing their families the ropes.

Karin prompts each section to play a few notes, giving the audience an appreciation of each instrument and how they fit together. Students get the chance to show off their skills, highlighting small groups within the large band. Because every sixth grader participates in band or choir, and this year’s class is particularly large, the band students have been split into sectionals until this week, when they performed together for the first time.

Performing at Taft 7-12.

As Karin introduces each section, students twist in their seats to see who is playing. Their stomps of support—it’s hard to clap and hold an instrument at the same time—show that they appreciate how much their peers have practiced. They know how much practice and hard work it took to get to this first performance, because they did it too. After the performance, the gym fills with beaming students whose families are holding their phones aloft to snap pictures. There’s the exuberant feeling of nervous excitement released, and the sense that for many students, this is their first performance of many more to come.

Lincoln City background

Lincoln City.

Lincoln City is a small coastal town west of the Oregon Coast Range, sandwiched between the natural wonders of Cascade Head and Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge. The area is the traditional home of the Tillamook and Siletz tribes. For many decades, the local economy revolved around salmon fishing and canning, and later timber. Today, its primary economic drivers are tourism and health care. Iconic Oregon Coast Highway 101 runs through Lincoln City, serving as its main street.

Lincoln City’s population of 8,500 swells to more than 30,000 in the summer months.1 The community has a large population of retirees—nearly 25% of county residents are 65 or older.2 Lincoln County is 83% white, although its younger residents are more diverse. The students in Lincoln County School District are 62% white and 23% Latino/x.3

The county’s poverty rate is high; about one-third of residents under 25 live in poverty.4 Many local students experience housing instability, and more than 1 in 6 are homeless. Despite the district’s small size, only four districts in Oregon have more homeless students. But despite these ongoing challenges, important strides in student achievement have been made over the past decade. In the early 2010s, the graduation rate at Taft 7–12 was less than 50%.5 In the 2019–2020 school year, it was 76%, approaching the state average.6 School leaders have attributed this improvement to many factors, including the expansion of popular electives like the school’s music program.

A vision of music as instrumental

From the beginning, the Lincoln City project team was an exceptionally committed group of nonprofit and school leaders who shared a vision for community arts education community and an ability to make decisions and implement changes quickly. The project’s original vision was “to engage students, teachers and community members in learning through the power of music” by bringing sequential music instruction into two local elementary schools while also supporting and strengthening existing middle and high school music opportunities with equipment, instruments and instruction. The project team intended to bring students new opportunities to experience the arts through artist residencies, concerts, camps and music in the school, and to give classroom teachers more access to professional development in music integration. The project team believed strongly that music education has inherent value and leaned on existing research demonstrating that it can also improve academic performance, attendance and behavior.7

The project team consisted of the elementary school music teacher, the high school band director, the principals of Oceanlake Elementary, Taft Elementary and Taft 7–12, as well as nonprofit partners Christine Tell of the Siletz Bay Music Festival and Niki Price, executive director of the Lincoln City Cultural Center. The team benefited immensely from its two nonprofit partners, who already had a close working relationship prior to the grant.

Something that made a difference for us is having a management team that meets every single month that includes teachers and principals. We’re to a point now where we can talk and say "this isn’t working," or "this is working" or "we want to do this or that." That makes a huge difference.
Niki Price, Executive Director, Lincoln City Cultural Center

Stringing together the notes

A young soloist.

Before 2014, Lincoln City schools offered few opportunities for music education. Most music programs were cut from the district budget in the early 2000s, meaning that a generation of students went through elementary school without music despite valiant efforts from committed staff. For example, a teacher who taught a computer class at the elementary school also spent several periods a day instructing students on the recorder, but did so without a systematic program and few supports.

When the project began, music opportunities existed at the middle and high school level, starting with the seventh grade band elective. This meant that many seventh graders started band without ever having played an instrument, gained knowledge of music appreciation or musical notation, or attended a concert. Thanks to the hard work of music teacher Andy Hordichok at Taft 7–12, the music program had already gained momentum, with 200 student participants (up from just 40 in 2007).8 There was clearly room to grow the district’s music program. But just how much, the team didn’t yet know.

Before we wrote this grant, we had one music teacher. He was doing a great job, bringing in kids from seventh to 12th grade to bands at the high school level. If you were a talented kid, and had a lot of support at home, you had access to music. But if you didn’t, you didn’t. Now, thanks to support from the district and this grant, the number of kids who have access to regular music is everybody.
Majalise Tolan, Director of Secondary Education, Lincoln County School District

Arranging a foundational music education

When the project began in 2014, sixth grade band hadn't existed for more than a decade, so the project team identified this as a good place to start. The scope of the project immediately expanded. In the words of Christine Tell, the Studio to School team facilitator, “When we initially convened our management team, they said, ‘Well, you can't do sixth grade band if kids don't know any music beforehand.’”

The project accordingly enlarged to include sequential music programming for all elementary students, so that they would enter sixth grade band with basic music skills and music literacy.

The two elementary schools contributed a half-time position for a music teacher, with the principals agreeing that the new teacher would be at each elementary school for one semester. The effort found early success, and the immediate reaction to the elementary music program was overwhelmingly positive. As music teacher Lindsay Fuson said in 2015, "At the beginning stages of launching this new music program, I have been really impressed by how much support I have gotten. Not only have I received support from the Siletz Bay Music Festival Board, but also from my administration and the community. Students are hungry for music… and their enthusiasm absolutely blew me away from the start.”

Having the two elementary schools share a music teacher worked well for two school years. In the 2016–2017 school year, the half-time music teacher role expanded to a full year of music at each school. This meant that students went from one or two 40-minute music classes per week to 30 minutes every other day for the full school year. Now all 940 students in grades K-6 received a full year of music education.

Lessons included learning to read music and building their understanding of tempo, time signature and rhythm. Students performed in concerts for parents and community members twice a year, performing original songs composed by their teachers as well as known compositions for audience sing-alongs. The elementary music program eventually grew to include musical theater and multimedia performances; choir and junior choir; instruments such as xylophones and tubano drums; and recorder and keyboard classes for fourth and fifth graders.

Building middle school band

With the elementary music program in place, the team turned to the sixth grade band. In order to recruit students, then-Principal Nick Lupo sent out a letter at the beginning of the school year to families describing the new band elective. Sixty-five sixth graders—about half of the sixth grade class—opted in, filling the high school band room to capacity. Students were bused from the two elementary schools up to the high school each day, and the district covered the cost of busing. Each student received an instrument free of charge and breakfast before class. The program team spent nearly $6,000 on instruments and $1,300 on sheet music and books to establish the new program.

Band Director Mike Freel leads practice.

The program team wasn’t sure what to expect. Many of the students were true beginners to music instruction, coming into sixth grade band without prior experience learning music or an understanding of behavioral expectations. Because the band room was at the high school, sixth graders would be in an unfamiliar school, without staff or students they knew. To smooth the transition, the program team decided to hire three retired music specialists to help in the classroom and support the band director for the first month. These specialists provided individual and small-group instruction, helping and encouraging students early on when it’s especially easy to get frustrated or discouraged. (Hear the first note played by this initial group of sixth graders.)

The early stages of learning an instrument can be frustrating without individual attention. We set up expert technicians to provide high-quality support to the music teacher to address this challenge. For example, individual students receive instruction on how to hold the instrument and produce sound. The technician may take a small group of students in sectionals and work on needed skills, work with soloists before an upcoming performance, and assist the classroom teacher with performance assessments throughout the year to determine individual student’s progress. The professional training and experience of our expert technicians must be unparalleled for a small rural community.
—Mark Sanders, Board Director, Music is Instrumental

It quickly became clear that with the expanded sixth grade band, additional instructional assistants for sectionals—including percussion, woodwinds, brass, flutes, and eventually choir—would be key to long-term program success. The grant paid for five instructional assistants—a group of retired musicians and music educators—to help with band early in the year and paid two for the whole year. The stipend was modest but meaningful at $30–40 per hour, depending on funding. To the team’s surprise and delight, the three assistants continued to come as volunteers. By the following year, the team had built a strong core of committed volunteer musicians to provide instructional support, individual skill-building and encouragement for young musicians.

Practice, practice, practice!

Ensuring all students have access to music

In many ways, the team was surprised at how well the first year of sixth grade band went. Students stuck with it, and their families and the community enthusiastically supported the new program. Sixth graders performed their first holiday concert to a standing-room-only crowd. The local press took note and contributed glowing coverage. By the end of the school year, students showed remarkable gains in music knowledge, social-emotional skills and academics. The team considered the first year of sixth grade band a rousing success. 

At the end of the year, elementary Principal Nick Lupo said, "OK, here's the mathematics data on the self-select group, the 65 kids who were in band." And we high-fived all around, because you look at that curve—it starts at the 50th percentile at the beginning of the year and goes all the way up; the kids gained 1.5-2 years. Two years, with music! And we went, "Alright. High five! We did it! Very cool."
Christine Tell, Studio to School Team Facilitator

But this positive trend of student achievement concealed a problem: The team was disappointed to see that students who had not opted into band had started the year below the 50th percentile for math and had barely reached the 50th percentile at the end of the year. Principal Lupo described the students left behind:

Let me tell you who did not opt into band. It's our highest-poverty students. It's our Latino population. It's our most transient kids. It's our homeless kids. It's not kids who don't have potential.
—Nick Lupo, former principal at Taft Elementary

It upset the team to see that certain students, including those who might benefit most from the music program, were not participating. The team had to face a tough reality:

With the best of intentions, we recreated a system we already had. We did not create access. We reinforced no access. And that was a real wake-up call.
—Christine Tell, Studio to School Team Facilitator

Mike Freel & Christine Tell.

While it was clear that certain students were not participating, the team did not have a good understanding of why. Was it because students did not see themselves as musicians? Was it because some students were just not interested in band? Was it the result of scheduling conflicts with other classes? Or was it misperceptions about the cost of instruments or other barriers?

Although the team didn’t have all the information they wanted, they felt strongly that they had to act rather than continue to reinforce an inequitable system. Although it was August and the new school year was just a few weeks away, Principal Lupo had a radical suggestion: make sixth grade band mandatory for all students.

That was a really important equity and access issue for us. When we started sixth grade band, if you had a parent who was an advocate for you, if you were a student who was regularly involved in a lot of programs, you wound up in music. Students who were less engaged in school weren’t in music. When Nick ran the numbers and saw that students who were in music performed better in mathematics and reading, it was a no-brainer to move to a required sixth grade program, for every student, every day, all year.
—Majalise Tolan, Director of Secondary Education, Lincoln County School District

And so the team pivoted, scrambling to fill in gaps and untangle logistics in the three weeks before the start of school. From the beginning of the sixth grade band program, in recognition of the high level of poverty in Lincoln City schools, the team had decided that no student should have to buy an instrument. Now, they needed to secure a chair, music stand and instrument for every sixth grader. So they got creative, finding assistance from pawn shops and a local retired teacher who could repair and refurbish instruments.

This scramble to secure enough equipment also meant that the schools’ inventory of instruments was built up to a level that could sustain beyond the life of the grant. With the program now expanded, Mike Freel, then-music director at Taft 7-12, established an organized instrument library, strengthening the structures to support a vibrant program and equal access. Refurbished and new instruments were made available for checkout to all students in sixth grade band, and for seventh, eighth and ninth graders in need.

Performing for a crowd.

To serve ALL students means that no student is denied access to music due to lack of funds for an instrument. We created an instrument library of over 300 instruments so that students check out an instrument for use during the school year. Students and parents sign a commitment to care for the instrument throughout the year, practice regularly at home, and perform in all concerts and state competitions. At the end of the year, instruments are checked in and damages assessed. Instruments are checked out during the summer to students who have fulfilled their commitment and demonstrated responsibility.
—Mike Freel, former director of Taft 7-12 music program

Through these efforts, all 130 sixth graders got a full year of introductory band starting in the 2015-2016 school year. At the end of the school year, 50 intended to continue. The beginning band program at Taft 7-12 started the following year with twice as many students as it had previously. Another 25 students were interested in seventh grade choir, and so a new middle school choir was formed. For students in grades 6-12, there was a total of five bands and two choirs—more opportunities than ever before to participate in music.

There are lots of kids playing in band now who would have never considered band or choir if they weren’t required to do it. Now they love it and will continue to do it. We’ve tapped into a pocket of people that we never knew we had.
Karin Teisl, Music Program Director, Taft Elementary

High school band grows

Keeping the beat.

In 2018, the first students who had participated in mandatory sixth grade band entered the ninth grade. The team was pleased to see that many students continued to take music as an elective, which was one of the project’s original goals. In the 2018-2019 school year, about a quarter of Taft High School students were enrolled in symphonic band, jazz band, or choir, and participating students reflected the overall school population in terms of race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Just as the project team had hoped, students who participated in music in earlier grades were more prepared, entering high school with a higher level of skill and better aptitude for music.

Most of the [high school] band is made up of ninth and 10th graders, the first to have mandatory sixth grade band. These students are the most passionate and the most dedicated. [Music is] a language. … A lot of our students come to us with English as their second language, so this is a third language for them. The brain is just working overtime. You’re thinking, decoding, processing, reading music, motor skills. Math class, you’re using one half; PE, you’re using the other half. Here, you’re using it all.9
—Mike Freel, former Taft 7-12 music director

The focus on early music education was also building a pipeline of musicians to create a stronger high school band program. It was clear that establishing music programming for younger grades had changed the complexion, makeup and depth of high school band. 

Musicians of all stripes.

The Taft music program achieves statewide recognition

In 2015-2016, the Taft 7-12 band program narrowly missed qualifying for state competitions. In the 2017-2018 school year, the entire Taft 7-12 music department (symphonic band, jazz band, and choir) qualified for state competition for the first time. All of them placed, and the jazz band took second place. During the 2018-2019 school year, Taft 7-12 hosted a statewide music competition for the first time. Over the course of four years—thanks to the hard work of the project team, support from the community, and the commitment, talent and persistence of students and teachers—their music program went from bare bones to being vibrant, respected and celebrated statewide.

Music is Instrumental becomes a nonprofit

In 2018, the project team began to explore the possibility of establishing a new nonprofit organization to support this project. In early 2019, the team formed Music is Instrumental, a 501(c)(3) with a mission is to “support high-quality music education, performances and instruments for students on the Central Oregon coast.” This includes a commitment to sustaining music education for all 1,200 students in north Lincoln County schools. The Studio to School project team expanded their professional relationship, becoming the new board and advisory group for Music is Instrumental: the three school music teachers, three principals, an administrator at the school district level, and the executive director of the Lincoln City Cultural Center. Together, they created a strong core of collaboration to propel the organization’s work under the leadership of Mark Sanders, the Music is Instrumental board director.

In its first six months, Music is Instrumental—under the leadership of Chuck Feist, director of endowment, and with support from the community, the school district and the local Salishan Coastal Lodge resort—raised $70,000 in donations and grants to support music programs. OCF awarded Music is Instrumental a $15,000 grant to expand music programming to Waldport Middle School in Lincoln County School District. That program now includes students in Crestview Heights Elementary and Waldport High School. Music on the coast is thriving, and the committed team continues to bring new and rich musical opportunities to students in Lincoln City and beyond.

  1. Lincoln City, Oregon. (n.d.). About Lincoln City. https://www.lincolncity.org/about
  2. Lincoln County Health & Human Services. (2018). Lincoln County Community Health Assessment 2018-2022. https://www.co.lincoln.or.us/sites/default/files/fileattachments/health_amp_human_services/page/4316/lincoln_county_2018_cha_2.pdf
  3. Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Lincoln County SD 2019-20. https://lincoln.k12.or.us/media/2018/10/1920-AAAG-2097.pdf
  4. Lincoln County Health & Human Services. (2018). Lincoln County Community Health Assessment 2018-2022.     
  5. Ruud, C. (2016, February 3). Grad success: Taft High praised for boosting graduation rate. Lincoln City News Guard. https://www.thenewsguard.com/community/grad-success-taft-high-praised-for-boosting-graduation-rate/article_e1e06694-c9f0-11e5-8c00-37d5e3dae076.html
  6. Oregon Department of Education. (n.d.). Lincoln County SD 2019-20. 
  7. Arts Education Partnership. (2011). Music matters: How music education helps students learn, achieve, and succeed. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED541070.pdf
  8. Ruud, C. (2017, June 23). Farewell: Taft music instructor leaves lasting impact. Lincoln City News Guard. https://www.thenewsguard.com/news/most-viewed-farewell-taft-music-instructor-leaves-lasting-impact/article_b9e36554-52b8-11e7-8cb1-cfbe91a5f89c.html
  9. Ruud, C. (2016, January 29). Music magic: Instruments help kids learn. Lincoln City News Guard. https://www.thenewsguard.com/community/music-magic-instruments-help-kids-learn/article_ba57953e-c518-11e5-9548-936d81689bca.html