Music program could benefit from bond issue

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By Tris DeRoma

If residents give the Los Alamos School District permission to purchase the next $20 million in general obligation bonds this January, Aspen Elementary School won’t be the only facility that will benefit. Los Alamos High School’s music wing may also get a serious revamp.


According to an itemized list of projects set aside for the next round of bond funds, $400,000 has been set aside for redesigning the music wing.

To Zane Meek, the high school’s band director, the money can’t come fast enough. Along with high school orchestra leader Michael Gyurik and choirmaster Jason Rutledge, the three have big plans for the money and how to use it, if voters give the bond issue a thumbs up.

For one thing, it will help them design a space that will keep from literally running into each other. As of now, the orchestra and band all share one room, which wouldn’t be so bad, except the instruments are stored all over the place, tucked away in rooms that are meant to be offices and rehearsal spaces for the students. Some equipment is even stored in the choir room. When you consider that there are about 250 students in the choir, band and orchestra vying for the same space, it can get pretty hectic and noisy, which isn’t exactly an environment conducive for learning an instrument, whether that be a trumpet or one’s voice.

“Band instruments are stored over here and the orchestra instruments are stored in the choir room, but they all rehearse over here,” Meek said. “So, they have to disrupt Mr. Rutledge’s class to get there and to put them away. They try to be as quiet as possible, but you’re opening doors and lockers.”

Rutledge said the number of students balloons to 300 when you include the guitar students, and the number swells way past that when you factor in all the community bands and groups that use the facility for rehearsal.

“I don’t know if anyone keeps statistics, but it’s my contention this is the most used public space in the entire county.

“If the rooms look worn out and tired, it’s because they are,” said Karen Mehlin, a band booster who was also at the school for a tour of the facilities.

There just simply isn’t any room any more, the group said.

“We simply have no practice space, because everything’s being used for storage,” Meek said.

Timpanis and other drums, flags, tubas, cellos, any instrument you can imagine are stuffed into one room or another, leaving the orchestra and band to compete for the same big space to rehearse in when there isn’t class.

“Anytime the students want to practice they have to use the room and the hallways,” Meek said. “There’s one rehearsal room in the choir area, but right now there are chairs in there.”

The whole arrangement makes for one cacophonous experience, as cello players struggle to hear themselves over trumpet or trombone players rehearsing within the same room.

Meek said the band doesn’t even have room for its trophies, which are perched precariously out in the open on a top ledge that goes around the 50-year-old room. Dusty, dingy and far away, No one seems to know what they were for — or when.

While the choir room has its own space, Rutledge said he has to use the facility’s teacher’s lounge to test his student’s vocal abilities.

“We have another place, it used to be an office, but now it’s used to store guitars in,” Rutledge said.
Meek said it can be embarrassing when they have guests, which are usually fellow competitors here for a band competition.  Meek said they’d like to impress their competitors, but usually, they end up being the butt of a joke or worse, shocked. He recalled when Art Sheinberg, an orchestra leader in the Albuquerque public schools, came up for a competition.

“He came in here and he said this room has not changed,” said Meek. “Maybe the carpet changed.”

Meek estimated Sheinberg may have gone to LAHS as a student in the late 60s or early 70s.

Another thing they hope the funds for the redesign cure is the constant shuffling of equipment from room to room, a problem Mehlin knows only too well.

“The band boosters spend a lot of time dealing with the marching band uniforms and they have their concert uniforms, so there’s this constant shuffle, ‘where are we going to put this for the next six weeks.’ ” Mehlin said. She estimates she’s put in more than 500 hours over a two year period moving things around, energy and time she said could have been spent more wisely doing other things, like saving money.

“Every year we do a new show, so we have to be really tough on ourselves on what we can keep and what we can’t,” Mehlin said. “We’ve had to throw away at least a half a dumpster of things, not because they were necessarily bad, but because we had to pare down the chaos.”

Built sometime in the 50s, Meek and Rutledge would also like to see some sound studio space in those new plans, facilities that are all too common in their colleagues’ music programs.

“I’m interested in teaching some of my classes how to do professional recordings or be recorded, but we just don’t have space for that,” Rutledge said.

One detail they’d all like to see carried out is concert and rehearsal spaces that have modern acoustics in them.

Rutledge and Meek said they often find themselves at a disadvantage at out-of-town competitions because their own space doesn’t have any modern acoustics that would give them proper feedback during rehearsal. The result is they often have to do some dramatic, last minute adjustments to their sound before they get to the stage.

Even concerts at home can be tough.

“The orchestra needs a completely different sounding room than the band might need and both these need something totally different than what the choir might need,” Rutledge said. “We really need spaces that are designed for the ensembles that practice in there on a daily basis. “Eventually this puts our kids at a disadvantage when they go against schools that get rehearsal spaces that help and aid them.”

They know the $400,000 is just a start and that they will probably have to wait for the next bond cycle to see their dreams of a modern concert and rehearsal facility realized.

Mehlin said she knows it could make a big difference in the students’ lives in other ways as well.

“I drive Zane and Jason crazy because I’m always saying ‘let’s do this, let’s do that,’ ” she said. “I just believe in this. I read somewhere that schools that have strong music programs do better in math and science. It’s well documented.”

Meek said he and the others have been speaking to anyone that would listen about the upcoming bond issue, telling them how important it is for residents to vote for it.

“Just having more opportunities and better facilities can help them. We can do more for them,” Meek said.