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Daniel Irvin, a teacher in the MCS program, conducts a Christmas concert Dec. 19 at St. James/Seton School in Omaha.

Music in Catholic Schools celebrates 40 years of enhancing lives

Little could Brian Johnson have known that, as an 11-year-old inspecting a trumpet in a display for a music instruction program at St. Gerald School in Ralston, he was taking the first step toward a future career.

Johnson is one of thousands of people who experienced the joy of playing music and performing with others through the Music in Catholic Schools (MCS) program. 

“That’s where the building blocks of my music education began,” he said. “That’s where the love of music was fostered and where I found a lot of success.”

Over time, he was instilled with a passion for music that would lead to a career in music education, currently as a teacher at Papillion-La Vista South High School.

Celebrating its 40th year this school year, MCS has helped students learn to play an instrument, but more importantly, learn about commitment, accountability and teamwork.

And those are some key aspects of the program, said Deb Lund, MCS director. In addition to learning the mechanics and techniques involved, it’s about committing to practice and learning to play together.

But making the experience possible required a commitment by the archdiocese’s Catholic schools as well. 

In the 1970s, two companies provided music instruction in schools – Music for America, serving Catholic schools, and Growing with Music, which served Lutheran schools and some of the larger Catholic schools. 

When Music for America folded in 1979, Lund said, Sister Genevieve Schillo, then-superintendent of Catholic Schools, Sister Marie Juan Maney, OP, then-music teacher at St. Cecilia School and Cathedral High School in Omaha, and a group of parents wanted to maintain a music program in the schools and formed MCS as a program of the archdiocesan schools.

PERFECT TIME

Now, two full-time and two part-time teachers conduct classes in 22 Catholic and three Lutheran elementary schools in the Omaha area.

MCS is open to students in fifth through eighth grades, with about 350 students in the program this year, Lund said.

“This is a great age for kids to explore their gifts,” she said, “so it’s a perfect time to try an instrument. Some kids have musical gifts, but they don’t even know it until they try it.”

First-year students learn the fundamentals of their instruments and simple, short pieces, while second- through fourth-year students learn more challenging pieces, she said.

Students receive twice-weekly instruction on their instruments and rehearse together, all during the school day. They also participate in concerts, such as a Dec. 9 Christmas concert, and have an opportunity to attend an annual clinic with guest band directors – this year set for Feb. 23 at Marian High School in Omaha.

Advanced students also can audition for honor band, which rehearses weekly in the evening, Lund said.

BUILDING CONFIDENCE

Johnson was one of those students who saw his musical abilities blossom through MCS.

“It built confidence in myself and my abilities,” he said. “As a music teacher now, I know one of things that music gives you is confidence to be yourself, something that hard work and focusing on a goal can give you.”

Another benefit was learning to be accountable, Johnson said. “If you didn’t know your part, you knew you were letting others down.

“Those life lessons of dedication, hard work and teamwork – that responsibility of doing your part as part of a bigger picture – are invaluable. I learned that at a young age, and it has carried over into my teaching now.”

Lund said learning to play music carries other benefits as well.

For example, research has shown how music benefits the developing brain, she said. 

“Playing an instrument uses the whole brain. You’re using your emotional side and you’re using your logical side.”

Although only a small number of students explore music as a career, many continue playing and enjoying music throughout their lives, she said.

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES 

Even with all the benefits, Lund knows there can be obstacles.

Since participation and instrument purchase or rental are funded by parents, affordability for low-income families can be a challenge. About 20 percent of participating students are needy, she said.

To help those students, MCS accepts donated instruments that can be reconditioned and made available when necessary, she said. 

“But the biggest challenge is time,” she said. “Today’s students are involved in more activities than they were 40 years ago, so we’re always encouraging parents and students to make it a priority – giving music a try and making time for practice.”

Having made that commitment himself, Johnson said his time in MCS has paid dividends in other ways.

“In addition to the playing, the thing I remember most is the kids I got to play with,” Johnson said. “And I remember the positive environment that was created.”

“Four of my really close friends to this day, I met in MCS honor band,” Johnson said. “That’s something I will always cherish.” 

BENEFIT DANCE

What: MCS will hold a benefit dance and silent auction, “Swinging Off the Treble Clef,” Feb. 1, 7:30-10:30 p.m. at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish Center, 5419 N. 114th St. in Omaha. Live music will be provided by the Nebraska Wind Symphony’s Swingtones. Dance lessons available 6:15-7:15 p.m.

Cost: $15; students and seniors $10. Call MCS office at 402-557-5600 for tickets and details. Tickets also available at the door.

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