University honors middle school music teacher

Wendy Whitford

Wendy Whitford, band and orchestra director at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg, was recently recognized with James Madison University’s Outstanding Music Educator Award for alumni.

But she couldn’t talk about it Wednesday afternoon.

“I have to go pick up a child to make sure he has a ride to the concert,” she said.

A teacher at the school since 2000, she spoke in a Thursday phone interview about her devotion to music and to her students.

Music, she said, “is essential to the human experience.”

“When we’re in the uterus, we are listening to music through our mothers,” she said. Music becomes for us something to soothe, comfort or entertain. “It’s there all the way to the end.”

“Sometimes we think music is just for the gifted kids or the college-bound kids,” she said. “It’s for everyone, every child, every human being.”

At North Fork Middle School, one-third of the student body plays a musical instrument and performs in band or orchestra.

“I think it’s a little higher than most, in terms of percentage. … “[and] when you’re in a small school you need everyone,” she said.

When she started, the school had about 440 students and the band included musicians on oboe, bassoon and French horn, but now with the school’s population down into the 320s, she said the band’s 60 students and orchestra’s 50 get by with the more popular instruments.

Whitford started on trombone and added euphonium in high school when she became drum major of her school’s marching band. In college she learned several more instruments, adding violin to better be able to teach orchestra students.

Once you play one instrument, it’s easier to learn others, she said.

But even learning one instrument takes time, and she said she encourages students not to give up on music too soon.

In Virginia, public school students begin learning an instrument in sixth grade rather than in fourth or fifth as they would in other states.

“It’s expensive,” she said. She guessed Virginia starts students later because of the cost districts would have to pay to have more music teachers at the elementary school level.

“I love teaching them when they’re that young,” Whitford said. “They’re so excited and eager to learn.”

She said it becomes a concern when students drop the class after a year or two when other electives or activities compete for their time and interest.

When they quit playing an instrument to join the chorus, she said, it’s a bittersweet ending for her.

“I’m still glad they’re making music,” she said.

Funding for music programs in Shenandoah County has dropped by about 50 percent during Whitford’s 14 years at the school, but she said music department fundraisers and generous community members have made it possible for the program to march on.

Whitford recently secured a second Target Field Trip Grant so she could take students to see the National Symphony Orchestra perform “Gershwin’s Magic Key” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, and learned Thursday morning that she’ll have funding from a Donors Choose grant to buy reeds for woodwind instruments and shoulder rests for stringed instruments.

The Walt Disney Company has agreed to match funds of donations to North Fork Middle School at the crowd funding website http://www.donorschoose.org through Dec. 21.

Recently, the orchestra performed the bluegrass tune “Cripple Creek,” a medley of Christmas and Hanukkah songs and “Russian Music Box,” which Whitford said sounds like its name suggests.

“We try to have a little bit of everything,” she said. It gives everyone a chance to play and hear something they like, she said. It also banishes any preconceptions about what a band or orchestra can do.

Orchestra, she said, is not all Johannes Brahms.

“They can play just as aggressive as any band.”

To donate to North Fork Middle School’s band or orchestra programs, search the school name at http://www.donorschoose.org or donate at http://tinyurl.com/qy64fwz

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com