Monday, 20 May 2024

Putting Students First: Music classes offer new experiences to Kelseyville students

Kelseyville Unified School District Superintendent Dave McQueen. Courtesy photo.

KELSEYVILLE, Calif. – As educators, our job is to provide students with the skills they need to thrive in the adult world.

They need basic skills like reading, writing and arithmetic, of course. They also need to discover their natural gifts so they can build on those gifts to create the life they want. Some people have a gift for music. Whether it becomes a profession or remains a hobby, music can bring lifelong joy.

This is why I’m so happy we have two full-time music teachers in our district.

Music offers students a way to express themselves, to connect with peers, and to have fun at school. As a side benefit, studies show music also helps with language development and spatial-temporal skills, which can lead to increased test scores in English and mathematics.

This year we have two new music teachers: Cory Cunningham at Kelseyville High School and Mercedes Castro at Mountain Vista Middle School. Both blend a love of music with a love of teaching and we are lucky to have them.


At MVMS, we invite sixth graders who’ve never played an instrument or sung in a choir to give it a try. In seventh and eighth grades, students build on what they’ve learned. Each grade level has its own concert band; the concert choir includes students from all three grades. MVMS also has a small percussion ensemble open to seventh and eighth graders.

Ms. Castro creates an environment where it’s safe for students to try new things. “I let students know we’re here to learn, that it’s okay to mess up,” she said. She helps students encourage each other and she strikes just the right balance between high expectations and having a good time. “Of course, we want to sound good. The students have to be serious about learning how to play, but we also laugh and have fun.”

Apparently, this message is striking a chord (pun intended), because the sixth grade band quickly grew from 35 to 50 students at the beginning of the year.

If you’d like to hear these budding musicians, come to one of their concerts. On March 28 at 7 p.m., the wind ensemble (eighth grade band) and concert choir are performing at Kelseyville High as part of the high school concert. On June 5 at 7 p.m., all MVMS bands, the choir and the percussion ensemble will perform their Spring Concert at the Thomas Aiken Center at KHS.


At Kelseyville High School, Mr. Cunningham offers several music classes: concert band, jazz band, choir, mariachi band, beginning instrumental, and music history. To be in one of the bands, students need experience, but if students want to pick up an instrument in high school, they can take the beginning instrumental class.

Mr. Cunningham not only teaches, he continues to perform as a musician himself. He said, “I think it’s important to remember what it’s like to be on the receiving end of the baton. It helps me be patient when I’m working with the students.”

Some of the smaller KHS groups travel to perform. The 13-member jazz band performed at the Folsom Jazz Festival and at Sacramento State University, for example, and the 20-member choir enjoyed caroling at Christmas. “Traveling can give the students a whole new perspective,” Mr. Cunningham said.

The mariachi band is new this year. The idea for the class is to create an opportunity for students to learn and celebrate the musical traditions and culture that represent so many members of our community. All students are welcome to participate, regardless of heritage.

“This music is a new adventure for me. I think it’s beautiful and I’m grateful to the district for investing in the instruments we needed to get started. I hope, through this music, we can speak to and educate our community," said Mr. Cunningham, who continued by explaining that it is really important to him to be respectful of a culture that isn’t his own and to provide the students with an authentic experience.

To that end, the high school is very lucky to have assistance from local mariachi singer and Kelseyville High alumni Patty Rico. Mr. Cunningham said, “Patty has helped us bridge the gap – I couldn’t do this without her. Mariachi music is for everyone!”


Two more people who continue to help our music program are Tom and Beth Aiken – as in the KHS Thomas Aiken Student Center. Tom was our high school music teacher for decades, and Beth worked at MVMS and in our elementary schools.

Now retired, they serve as mentors to our current music teachers. They help with rehearsals, run sound at performances, play the piano for the choir and provide support when Mr. Cunningham and Ms. Castro have questions or need a little advice. Mr. Cunningham called them “beautiful people” and a “huge influence.”

The Aikens, Patty Rico, and our music teachers know that becoming a musician requires practice and commitment. Ms. Castro said, “Teaching music can be a hard job, but those moments when the students overcome something they’ve struggled with, seeing their effort pay off – that makes it worth it. And it’s not always about the music. It’s about learning to be part of a team, to be responsible for their part. There’s a lot of personal growth.”

Whether our students go on to play for huge audiences or simply for themselves, thanks to our music program, music can be part of their lives forever.

Dave McQueen is superintendent of Kelseyville Unified School District.

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