Five years ago, the music students of Clair-Mel Elementary School played on woodblocks and xylophones, the only instruments the school could afford.
The parents, who struggled to make ends meet in an area with poverty 21 percent higher than the national average, were unlikely to buy real instruments either.
But on Nov. 22, students who went to Clair-Mel and other underfunded schools filled the halls of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts with music played from trumpets, flutes and clarinets.
Music teacher Lori Valdez said her now-former students didn’t get the chance to play advanced compositions on the stage through ambition alone, but with a little help from friends.
Instruments of Change, founded in 2009 by USF alumnus Glen Schubert, has partnered with schools to bring musical instruments and instruction to nearly 800 kids in the Tampa area in the last year.
Targeting fifth graders in impoverished areas, Schubert said the band program uses music to help children at risk of getting left behind in school.
“They’ll get the education benefit. It will expand their education capacity just by learning to play an instrument,” he said. “They’ll earn more money, raise more stable families and give more back to the community.”
Schubert said he was inspired by a Harvard study that related learning music with higher motivation, improved memory and better grades. But standardized testing can only measure the surface level of the benefits playing music has in school.
“Playing with others allows them to feel like they belong in school,” Schubert said. “There’s a reason and place in which they excel … it feeds into their self esteem.”
One father, Schubert said, described his son as “the worst kid in school” until he started playing with the classroom band.
“The kid got in fights all the time and was continually in the principal’s office,” he said. “Then he connected with a stand-up bass and went from a D student to an A or B student with a full-ride scholarship.”
Schubert said other parents called the program an alternative to therapy that they couldn’t afford for their children.
“One talked about how he gets really, really angry,” he said. “When he gets angry, he picks up the trumpet and plays … the anger just fades away and he can focus and do homework.”
Another child got his grades up because he loved playing jazz, Schubert said, and a good GPA is needed to get into the middle school jazz program.
By the time the children, who start the program in fifth grade, get into the middle school, Schubert said they already have the head start and momentum to succeed.
“They can play better than everyone around them,” he said. “They’re immediately in a position of knowing more than people around them, helping people around them and getting the recognition from the band director.”
Yet, Schubert said he even hopes the lessons taught by the band program goes beyond school.
While Instruments of Change usually rents instruments to keep costs down, there is an opportunity for kids to earn instruments that will be theirs to keep.
The caveat is that the children must prove they can keep playing for a year before they earn an instrument, which Schubert said instills values of hard work and accountability.
“It’s an education in keeping your word and seeing that commitment through,” he said. “We’re asking children who are 10 years old to commit more than a year of their life to earn their instruments.”
Receiving an instrument may be one of the first things they’ve ever earned, Schubert said, and a large ceremony is held as a grand example of hard work paying off.
“It’s so easy for people to think it’s a free instrument, but we’re not an entitlement program,” he said. “It was not free, these kids put in hours and hours of time and energy to earn these instruments.”
Not every child sticks with it, Schubert said, but the program tries to convince the kids to stick out learning the first three notes before giving up.
Though three notes may seem like an easy starting place, Schubert said the concept isn’t a quick vision, but a long-term investment in the community.
Funding for public education can’t cover all the costs associated with the arts, especially orchestral instruments that cost hundreds of dollars, so Schubert said the program is one way to help support future generations.
“If you go speak to administrators about not cutting arts programs, the question is what else can we cut?” he said. “Do we cut buses so kids can’t get the school? Do we cut school lunches so kids have to go home and eat? Do we cut teacher salaries when they’re already struggling?”
Much of the funding for Instruments of Change currently relies on corporate sponsors, such as Braille Works, Pinch-a-Penny and Westshore Pizza.
After three years of networking, Schubert said he’s now also reaching out to the Tampa community that mostly doesn’t know the program exists.
“If we got one dollar from everyone in Tampa Bay, we could fund these programs for years,” he said. “If we got one dollar from everyone in the U.S., we could change millions of lives with $300 million.”
After the second annual benefit concert at the Straz, where the kids in the music program opened up for country singer Caroline Kole, Schubert said he’s enthusiastic about the growing generosity from both corporations and community volunteers.
Instruments of Change recently expanded to create a drum-line in St. Petersburg and piano lessons for the Boys & Girls Club of Tampa Bay. Schubert also said elementary schools from around the area have contacted him with interest in the program.
Though it’s too early to tell the life-long impact the program will have, Valdez said high school students continue to play and come back to Clair-Mel Elementary School to encourage the new kids in the band.
One high school student donated an old clarinet passed down by his family, Valdez said, because he believed it could make a difference.
“It’s touching to see them play a real instrument,” she said. “The excitement in their faces and how proud they are is hard to put into words.”