The McDowell Arts Council Association brings free piano instruction to elementary age students in public schools with the program crescendo! It was created and is lead by classical composer and pianist Nathan Shirley.
The program currently operates in two McDowell County elementary schools, providing group piano classes for all 3rd and 4th graders, as well as all 5th graders at the smaller school. In total, 125 students participated in the spring semester of 2023, receiving two 30 minute classes per week. The vast majority of students have had no previous music education, so they first received preparatory classes introducing them to playing rhythms and singing simple patterns while also learning the fundamentals of music notation.
Students learn about and practice fine-motor/finger control, posture/hand position, reading from the grand-staff, navigating the keyboard, improvising, playing as an ensemble, and even basic composition. At the end of the first semester they participate in a recital/concert for parents. Most sign up to perform solos; either reading music, playing from memory, improvising, or playing an original composition. And they all perform music together as an ensemble.
The Importance of Music Education
Hundreds of studies have shown direct connections between music education and cognitive development, including improved performance in academics, social intelligence, and much more. Despite this extensive data, public school music programs in the United States continue to be cutback and eliminated. In the fall of 2022, when crescendo! started, only 3 of the 8 public elementary schools in North Carolina’s McDowell County had music teachers, and only 2 of those were certified teachers.
Less than half of elementary students in McDowell County are reading proficiently and fewer still meet the proficiency level for math. All elementary schools in McDowell County are Title I schools and 39% of students in the county are eligible for free or reduced lunch. For comparison, 24% of students in Asheville City Schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch (also a very large percentage). At Old Fort Elementary–one of the two schools crescendo! operates in–43% of students are eligible for free lunch (not including those eligible for reduced lunch). At the other crescendo! school, North Cove Elementary, 61% of the students are eligible for free lunch.
According to the McDowell Schools’ information on homeless students (reported by McKinney-Vento), in 2020-’21 there were 410 homeless students identified. That’s about 7% of students in the county. If you compare that to Asheville City Schools, in 2020-’21 they identified 155 homeless students, which is 3.6% (still huge). The McKinney-Vento program defines homelessness as lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence”.
(Based on the latest information available as of 2023.)
A Unique Program
Most group piano classes for kids operate after school; at music schools, churches, or community buildings, but crescendo! operates in schools, during school hours. This poses many logistical challenges, but it also enables the program to reach kids whose families rely on busing and might not be able to provide transportation after school. While it would be difficult to quantify how many students wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise, in McDowell County it would likely be a lot.
Two schools without music programs were selected which the Arts Council felt would be good places to start. One goal has been to try to remind schools and parents of the importance of music education, in hopes that they might be persuaded to hire general music teachers since crescendo! currently starts at 3rd grade.
Consider a Donation
The projected cost to run crescendo! for the 2023-’24 school year is just shy of $27,000. These funds will cover the purchase of additional instruments and instruction for 190 children.
The majority of funding has been raised for the 2023-’24 school year, but about $6,300 is still needed by spring.
Donations are tax-deductible and can be made to McDowell Arts Council Association, earmarked for crescendo! Donate online here, or by mail:
McDowell Arts Council Association
PO BOX 1387
Marion, NC 28752
Sponsors & Partners
Asheville Area Piano Forum
Ben Folds | Keys for Kids
Community Foundation of WNC
McDowell Arts Council Association
North Carolina Arts Council
North Carolina Arts Foundation
North Cove Elementary School
Old Fort Elementary School
Casio Music Gear