Honors College program nurtures love for music in Tuscaloosa children

NOTEable aims to empower students by teaching basic music theory through the recorder.

By Sara Wilson
News Reporter

About 20 students from Flatwoods Elementary School stood at the front of the cafeteria, recorders confidently in hand, fingers poised over the tone holes. The fourth and fifth graders had practiced all semester for this culminating performance of “Honey Run.” Over eight weeks, they learned the basics of music theory, how to read music, and how to connect breath to tune with the simple wind instrument. Now, it was time to show off their skill. 

From the start, however, their rhythm was off. The notes were all wrong. Instead of the simple melody, a cacophony of high pitched recorder noise erupted from the ensemble. Trey Sullivan, the student leader and conductor, quickly came to the rescue.

“It’s OK,” he said. “Sometimes we need to start over and try again as musicians.”

They did start again, this time nailing the song. The applause afterwards was thunderous and the students’ smiles were radiant.

The after school program NOTEable held its celebration concert on the afternoon of April 17. Students serenaded the audience of school faculty, parents, college mentors and community members with classic children’s songs like “Hot Cross Buns,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Old Mac.” 

NOTEable is a music education program run through the Honors College at The University of Alabama that aims to empower students by teaching basic music theory through the recorder.

The group partners with Tuscaloosa One Place to implement its curriculum after school two days per week at various local elementary schools. For the past two semesters, the initiative has been at Flatwoods Elementary School working with third through fifth grade students. Before then, it was at Matthews Elementary School and Holt Elementary School.

Olivia Gevedon, a junior Honors student, had the idea for the program after identifying the lack of consistent music education programs in Tuscaloosa elementary schools.

The anthropology major has a background in piano and played the clarinet throughout high school, but she was not using that skill in college and missed the craft. Her impetus for pursuing a more formal music education was learning the recorder as an elementary student, and she said she wanted Tuscaloosa students to have that same chance of falling in love with the hobby.

“We wanted to give the students in our community the equal opportunity to learn music if they want to and continue with it later on in life,” Gevedon said. 

Gevedon partnered with Sullivan to create the program during the fall 2017 semester. The duo had individually worked on two projects during the previous summer in Perry County that targeted fourth graders, so they knew that they were most comfortable with that age group. 

They worked with local non-profit Tuscaloosa One Place, which had the existing infrastructure of successful after-school programs in about 10 elementary schools. In addition, they received support from the Honors College through its educational outreach office Engage Tuscaloosa. 

Rene Jones, the director for after school programs at Tuscaloosa One Place, said she appreciated Gevedon and Sullivan’s initiative to introduce students to music education.

“A lot of the kiddos that attend our after school programs don’t have access to quality enrichment, especially with arts education,” she said. “Beyond that aspect, to have mentors that come in from the community to work with them is a huge thing for these children—to have that one on one or that small group interaction with a mentor has a huge impact.”

Though Gevedon said an initial challenge of the program was recruiting student mentors, they now operate with about 20 mentors to work with 35 children. Laurel Wenckowski, a senior studying management information systems, started working with the program earlier this year and said she wished she got involved sooner. She volunteered on Wednesdays and worked with a third grader named Tessa.

“The recorder wasn’t something that came naturally to her at first, but she had a resilience and willingness to keep going even when she messed up, which is really hard to have as a kid,” Wenckowski said.

She said a lot of the joy from being a mentor was watching the students grow in confidence and skill.

“A lot of these kids came into this program not really considering themselves musicians, and I don’t think they saw it as something they would do in their future,” she said. “Watching them have a realization that they can be good at music and pursue it in middle and high school is really cool. They definitely surprise themselves and us.”

Gevedon and Sullivan both said that one of the most rewarding parts of leading the program is when the students switch from copying the mentors or memorizing the songs to actually reading the music themselves. Since they both relied on music as a creative outlet and stress reliever in high school, they said they hope the students will continue learning songs and practicing the recorder after the program ends. 

They have worked on improving the students’ retention rate of the music theory skills, and hosting an end-of-year concert is one way to celebrate the students’ achievements. At the end of the concert, mentors handed out certificates of completion and shared specific encouragements for every student. 

“The kids are just a little bit more excited to come on the days we are here,” Sullivan said. “Performing at something like this is an ego-boost to them, which is what they need.”

Carson Nguyen is a third grader in the program, and he grooved along next to his father to a bonus performance from the Million Dollar Band trombone section at the end of the concert. As he ate a heavily-frosted cupcake during the reception, he said that his favorite song to play is “Merrily We Roll Along.” 

“It’s just easy to play,” he said. “It’s fun, and you get to play something that sounds really cool.”