ATLANTIC CITY — The students held straws to their mouths and sat upright with shoulders back and heads forward as Christopher DiSanto instructed them to take a deep breath and push the air out through the straw, drawing from their stomachs.
A strange lesson, but not for the young clarinet players who are under his mentorship as part of a Bay Atlantic Symphony program.
DiSanto has been playing clarinet for 47 years. On Friday, he sat down with two Atlantic City High School students to impart some of that experience.
“You learn a lot of extra things,” said Jay Kapasiawala, 16, of Ventnor.
Kapasiawala, a junior, has been playing clarinet since fourth grade but said the mentor program helps him refine his skills.
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DiSanto, of Springfield, Pennsylvania, is a professor at Stockton University and one of several professional musicians from the Bay Atlantic Symphony helping more than 100 students a year gain exposure to music education. In addition, the program, also in place in Vineland, helps provide instruments and private instruction to students who may have otherwise been unable to afford it.
“We recognize that as an inner-city school, many of the families don’t have the funds to purchase instruments for private lessons on their own,” said David Murray, who teaches the orchestral academy at Sovereign Avenue Middle School.
Atlantic City High School Band Director Steve Spurlock said the mentorship program has been invaluable for his students.
“We’re in a big, difficult district for sending kids up to high school knowing how to play music,” said Spurlock, 28, of Somers Point.
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He said that since the program started, more students from Atlantic City High School are going to college to study music.
“We almost never had that before,” Spurlock said.
Access to music education varies from town to town and state to state. New data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress surveying 9,000 eighth-grade students across the country show 17 percent of students in the Northeast reported participation in a school band, up one percentage point from 2008. Twenty-four percent of Northeast students reported participation in a chorus or choir, up from 17 percent in 2008.
At the state level, New Jersey is making advances in exposing students to arts education, in particular music. Five years ago, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to include arts education measures on its annual school performance reports. The latest data show 39 percent of high school students in New Jersey were enrolled in music classes, up from 18 percent the year prior.
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“Increasingly, in the last 20 years as schools have focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), what they’ve discovered is that it’s not helpful to focus solely and exclusively on it,” said Jed Gaylin, Bay Atlantic Symphony’s music director.
Linda Gentile, conductor and musical director of the Jersey Shore Pops orchestra in Cape May County, said music studies can improve the academic grades of students, specifically math skills.
“Basic music study for every student would be beneficial, even if it’s only for a year,” said Gentile, 52, of Upper Township.
The Jersey Shore Pops has an internship program for aspiring musicians as well as a school outreach program in Middle Township. This year, they are opening up spots for students in music or dance in their annual Christmas concert.
Spurlock said math, language and science are important to learn for survival in the world, but music helps people live.
“It’s important in the way all arts are important,” Spurlock said. “Art, and by extension music, that’s why we do all that stuff.”
Bay Atlantic Symphony Executive Director Meg Sippey said that while the middle schools and high school in Atlantic City do offer music education, the instruments are limited. What the symphony is able to do is expand the exposure, especially to string instruments.
Gaylin said students crave immersion in arts, which he said develops creativity and teamwork. He said a lot of schools are moving toward developing programs.
“We have jumped in when the schools have not been able to do this,” Gaylin said. “Students, whether they go on to be musicians or not, this is a vital part of what they do.”
The mentorship program started in 2014 with the help of Stockton University and is supported by the New Jersey Council on the Arts, the Friends of Music program and the Bergen Foundation. About half of the funding for the program comes from the symphony’s annual gala, scheduled this year for Sept. 16 at Borgata Hotel Casino and Spa.
Sippey said that this year, the symphony has hired an education and community engagement manager to expand outreach.
“We’re really committed to touching more lives,” she said.