Raising the Bar

By Liz Onufer, Photography by Linda Swope
Violin students at Teton Middle School.

When Susan Christensen was hired as the music teacher at Teton Middle School (TMS) in 2007, then-Superintendent Gordon Woolley asked her to “please rebuild our program.” A series of short-term music teachers had undermined what once was a source of great pride and acclaim in the valley, stretching back to the middle of the twentieth century.

From 1925 to 1967, Clarence “Prof” Murdock taught music at Teton High School. A well-loved music teacher, Prof Murdock built a music program at THS in which a majority of students participated. But after his forty-two-year tenure, the school’s music programs lost their allegro. 

A year before Christensen joined the TMS faculty, Kristy Romano had taken the position of music director at THS. “The program was broken when I started,” Romano says. 

From 2003 to 2006, there had been six different band directors at the schools. Today, however, the music tradition and the legacy of Prof Murdock is being rebuilt by the dedication and passion of  Romano, Christensen, and fellow music teacher Julie Schindler. 

Susan Christensen Teaches Middle School Band.

Commitment and consistency in the faculty was just the first step. Creating a program that students wanted to be a part of was the next. At TMS, Christensen sees the program as a place for kids to belong and succeed. “Sometimes, this is what gets a kid to school,” she says.  

Currently, about half of the students at TMS participate in the music program. Retaining these students as they move to high school, though, is a challenge. Sports, course schedules, and peer stereotypes steer some students away from continuing their musical pursuits. Christensen is working to dispel such myths as “athletes cannot be in band” and  “choir is for girls.” 

“Students struggle between music and sports,” she says. “Who says they can’t do both? Why limit anyone?” 

The choices in the music program at the district are growing, too. Most recently, Schindler joined TMS as the strings teacher. Now in its third year, the program boasts eighty students who can choose to learn the violin, viola, cello, or string bass. The initial concern that a strings program would pull students away from band has proved unfounded. Rather, the addition of the strings has grown the program, and Schindler will now teach the class at THS as well. She envisions one day having a full symphony orchestra at the high school, something the district hasn’t seen for fifty years, since the days of Prof Murdock. 

“This is a big city program in a rural district,” Schindler says. 

Julie Schindler teaches strings at both TMS and THS. Her kids have shown talent and dedication, she says.

The sounds and talents of such a metropolitan-like program were evident last winter at THS’s inaugural Mid-Winter Festival, showcasing valley professional musicians alongside the school program participants. Held in the THS auditorium, the evening highlighted local artists Kristine Ciesinski, Candace Miller, Dave Bundy, Tim Hodgson, and others who played across the genres, from opera to rock ’n’ roll and bluegrass. The performance’s finale of “Shalom,” a piece originally composed for piano, was arranged by Romano and Schindler for the students to perform with the pros. 

“The professional musicians were on the stage, the band was in the pit, and the choir was in the aisles,” Romano recalls. “It was my favorite moment from the year.” 

The students showcase their own talents in a number of other events during the year, from the school concerts and District 6 Festival, to the Fine Arts Festival and state and regional competitions.

“Music class has a great intrinsic motivation because students know the performance is coming,” Christensen  says. “It’s very public.” 

Kristy Romano, the music director, teaching High School Band.

The students are doing well in these performances, in some cases competing against students from schools with much larger programs in cities like Boise, Portland, and Seattle. Last year, several THS students were accepted to the All Northwest Choir and the All State Choir, and competed at the State Solo Festival.

At its core, though, the value of a music program cannot be measured in performances or awards. The true value is the relationships the program fosters among students, with families, and across the community. 

“Music creates a sense of community. It doesn’t matter what [your] race, religion, gender, political beliefs, sports teams may be,” Romano says. “Music is a great way to build relationships, a way to come together and be unified.” 

Tuba player in the High School Band

Christensen points to the potential of music in our valley. “In a community that can be so divisive—religion, lifestyle, race, politics—music is inclusive. Our school concerts are a diverse cross-section of our valley and everyone is there to support the kids. Music has the ability to do that.” 

Half a century ago, Prof Murdock helped the community gather around music, and Christensen recognizes the opportunity as here yet again.  “Our music program is a microcosm of what Teton Valley should do: come together to make things beautiful,” she says.  

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