This FWCS program is helping students access music instruments and education

When seventh grade Amara Marion began taking band classes at Memorial Park Middle School last year, she fell in love with playing the trumpet.

Even so, learning the instrument was not as easy or as accessible as she expected. During the pandemic, she's been on a hybrid schedule at school, spending some days in class socially distant and others doing e-learning. This has made using the instruments at her school more difficult.

Amara Marion, an eighth grader at Memorial Park, poses with her trumpet at a hotspot for local music in Fort Wayne, Crescendo Coffee & More.

Thanks to a program called b Instrumental, she's been able to borrow a musical instrument to keep in the comfort of her home and grow her skills. This has allowed her to practice outside of the classroom when it's most convenient for her, and the experience she's gaining makes her interested in a career in music.

That's the idea behind b Instrumental, a program started by the Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS) Foundation in 2016, which provides students with greater access to the benefits of music education, instruments, and careers in the music industry. 

Amara Marion, an eighth grader at Memorial Park, writes songs for piano while at Crescendo Coffee & More.

The program is supported heavily by Fort Wayne-based music retail giant Sweetwater, whose founder, Chuck Surack, got his own start in FWCS music programs, not having taken a single private lesson. Over the years, Surack's business has grown into the largest online retailer of musical instruments and pro audio equipment in the U.S.

"What I learned as a music student has sustained me throughout my life," says Surack in a 2017 press release. "Both in my business career and my personal life, music has been incredibly important. That's why my wife Lisa and I are committed to this campaign to significantly increase the number of students involved in music at Fort Wayne Community Schools."

Amara Marion, an eighth grader at Memorial Park, writes songs for piano while at Crescendo Coffee & More.

B Instrumental was initially developed by the FWCS Foundation in late 2014 with a goal to increase student academic performance through participation in the arts. Research shows that students who participate in the arts, especially music, often get better grades, have better attendance, and incur fewer discipline occurrences throughout their academic career. 

In the spring of 2016, the program began with 32 students across Lakeside Middle School, Miami Middle School, and Shawnee Middle School. When students are in sixth grade, they can learn about which instrument(s) they want to play. Then, in seventh grade, they can try out for the program, which allows them to borrow an instrument from grades 7-12. It also provides them access to additional music education, summer camps, and training opportunities to enhance their skills.

Amara Marion, an eighth grader at Memorial Park, writes songs for piano while at Crescendo Coffee & More.

One year after b Instrumental began, the Suracks donated 100 gently used instruments to provide students with greater access to equipment. Since then, Sweetwater has continued to support the program with access to new and gently used instruments for students to borrow as well as financial contributions.

Bruce Schneider, manager for the b Instrumental program at FWCS, says the instruments themselves provide students with enhanced learning opportunities.

"When I was first hired, many of our instruments were more than 30 years old in our district," Schneider says. 

Amara Marion, an eighth grader at Memorial Park, poses with her trumpet at a hotspot for local music in Fort Wayne, Crescendo Coffee & More.

One challenge with older instruments is that they each have unique and different quirks, and since students might be assigned a different one each year in class, they would have to compensate for each instrument's differences. Having one consistent, newer instrument they can use throughout their education with b Instrumental gives them greater encouragement and ease in the already challenging process of learning to play.

"Without Sweetwater and the donations, we wouldn’t be where we are right now as far as instruments go," Schneider says. “So far, we’ve purchased 682 brand new instruments at the cost of a little over $405,000.”
 
Since b Instrumental began, the program has grown to 462 students enrolled in the 2021-2022 academic year, after a small drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schneider says that like many things during the pandemic, taking music classes was not simple. 

“COVID did affect our enrollment for a while because kids just didn’t have the same experience that they would have in a normal school year," he says. "We never really stopped the band, but the ensemble classes were really diminished at that point in time.”

Schneider says the program has regained some normalcy and returned to having full band and orchestra classes. 

While easing back into the classroom setting, Marion says b Instrumental has helped her retain her music skills and keep developing her craft without having to worry about transporting her trumpet back and forth between school and home.

Going into 8th grade this year, she wanted to take band again because of the people in her class, the chance to play on stage, and the opportunity to keep learning from her band director at Memorial Park Middle School, Scott Maack. 

“He’s been a really good role model to me," Marion says.

Amara Marion, an eighth grader at Memorial Park, writes songs for piano while at Crescendo Coffee & More.

She is grateful for the support and confidence she's received from Sweetwater and b Instrumental, too. Before she enrolled in band, her only experience with the trumpet consisted of playing around with her grandfather's coronet once. While the instruments are similar, the coronet had been in the family for many generations and was beyond the need for tuning. 

“Sweetwater sent us really nice instruments," she says. "I know some students who want to play an instrument don’t get this opportunity."

Thanks, in part, to the growth that b Instrumental has inspired, FWCS was recently approved by the State of Indiana to have graduation pathways for the civic arts programs, which will include a music study option, Schneider says. This means students like Marion who are considering a career in music will have a dedicated high school curriculum to prepare them for college or post-secondary careers. 

“It would be really great if b Instrumental was open to more schools," Marion says. "It’s a really nice program. It has encouraged me to play more and succeed at playing the trumpet."

Learn more
For more information about b Instrumental or to donate to the program, visit the FWCS Foundation website.

This story is part of a series supported by Sweetwater.