Music grows at Uncommon Schools in Brooklyn

uncommon schools music class
Music education is critical at Uncommon Schools.
Photo courtesy of Uncommon Schools

For seventh grader J’Kari Sanders, playing the saxophone helps calm him down after math class at Uncommon Schools‘ Ocean Hill Collegiate Charter School in Brooklyn.

“When I get agitated, I’ll play my saxophone and it’ll help me calm down because of the sound and how relaxing it is for me,” J’Kari said. 

That’s music to the ears of Jeff Walton, the founding band director at Ocean Hill, which recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its music program with a concert by the students.

In a post-pandemic environment, Walton said music instruction can play a crucial role in supporting students’ social and emotional development. 

And while music programs are often shortchanged, Walton said the required instrumental instruction program at Ocean Hill has evolved into an essential component of education that has been a transformative experience for students.

“Our students have discovered that music isn’t just about notes and rhythms,” Walton said. “Music can be a pathway to self-expression and personal growth – and middle school is a crucial time for that! Through music, our kids develop their creativity and build their confidence, which can transform not only their skills but their outlook on life.”

Neriah Wedgeworth first started playing the acoustic guitar in summer camp when she was nine. Now an eighth grader, she decided she wanted to learn piano after hearing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

“I heard that and was like, I want to play piano,” said Neriah, who joined Ocean Hill as an eighth grader. “I like the piano because it’s really easy to learn for me. I like practicing because it gives me peace of mind.”

Walton said learning an instrument also has academic benefits, particularly in math and language arts.

“The arts create lifelong learners,” Walton said, “And playing a musical instrument does so much to build concentration, patience, and discipline. We’re proud to have provided this experience for more than 800 kids over 10 years.”

School Principal Miriam Maul said students also learn a new language by reading music. 

“With practice and dedication, students unlock the universal language of music, transcending barriers and connecting with the soul of the world,” Maul said.

The music program is also culturally responsive to the school population, which is predominantly Black, Maul said. Students at the Herkimer Street school, located in Ocean Hill near Brownsville and Bed-Stuy, learn from the songbooks of Beres Hammond, Duke Ellington, Prince, Michael Jackson, Fela Kuti, and Beyonce. 

Students at Uncommon, the high-performing charter school network that operates 24 schools in Brooklyn, begin music instruction in elementary school, which focuses on musical foundations, including music literacy, instrumental skills, and vocal training. 

Instrument training begins in seventh grade, when students are introduced to all the instruments and then can rank which ones they want to play, from trumpet, trombone, saxophone, keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums.

In addition to Walton, the music program has four specialist teachers for the different instruments. “Mr. Woodruff, Mr. Broza, Mr. Goldstein, and Ms. Raanan are a huge part of our program,” he said. “The team collaborates to help every student learn music and brings in new ideas so that the program evolves.”

During seventh grade, students learn their instrument in small groups with the specialist for three days a week. Students take band four times a week.

When she was in seventh grade, Khyla Johnson’s original choice was the guitar, but Walton steered her to the bass guitar.

“I felt knowing her academically and knowing her personality that she would be a really good fit for bass guitar because you need somebody super solid,” Walton said.

Khyla said she never thought of playing the bass, but she’s glad she did.

“It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s very monotone, very relaxing. It’s very loud.”

music students at uncommon schools
Students celebrated the tenth anniversary of Uncommon Schools’ music program with a special concert. Photo courtesy of Uncommon Schools

Learning to play the bass has given her the confidence to pursue music in high school. She applied, auditioned and got into the highly competitive Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in the vocal program.

“Playing the bass made me more ready to lead musically,” Kayla said. “It helped me know where I wanted to go for high school. I knew I wanted to be more musically inclined. I knew I wanted to, like, be in the spotlight, be singing.”

Kayla said she would like to become one of the few female singers who can also play the bass.

Emily Crowe Sobotko, the senior manager for music programs at Uncommon Schools, said ensuring that every student had the opportunity to pick up an instrument and learn to play it was a matter of equity.

“We are going all in and investing in having music be a core part of the student experience,” Crowe Sobotko said. “If the music program is opt-in, in some regards it can be not equitable,” she said. “All students have an opportunity to try an instrument and see if it’s something that sticks with them. At first, students may not be that into learning the instrument, but over time, they actually start to get really into it.”

The success of the program at Ocean Hill has inspired leaders at Uncommon’s other middle schools in Brooklyn to start music programs at their schools. 

“Learning to play instruments enriches their lives by fostering teamwork, self-expression, and emotional intelligence,” Walton said. “It prepares them to thrive in society, beyond the realm of music.”

Eighth-grader Chance Phillips says he has made many new friends in the band. 

“In a band, you learn to bond with other people, in high school, I plan to keep playing the piano.”