An Elm City ditty

Symonds Elementary School music teacher Peter Siegel sings a song he composed about Keene during a music class Friday morning. Instead of students meeting in the music room, Siegel carts some instruments to each classroom, which minimizes the children’s need to move around the building.

Peter Siegel has been wanting to expand the music program at Symonds Elementary School, especially the number of instruments kids can try in his classes.

“But every year we only have a set budget to buy maybe another instrument or two,” said Siegel, who is in his 13th year as the music teacher at the Keene school. “So in order for me to really have a decent number of instruments at a decent quality, I would have had to invest a couple of thousand dollars.”

So, when the opportunity arose earlier this year for Siegel to receive new instruments for Symonds, and additional educational training, through a new grant-funded initiative called “New Hampshire Rocks!” he couldn’t pass it up. And last month, he found out Symonds was one of 13 schools throughout the state, and two in the Monadnock Region, selected to join the inaugural class for the program, which is offered in partnership with the national organization Little Kids Rock and benefactors including a foundation launched by Latin rock legend Carlos Santana.

Hinsdale Middle/High School music teacher Matt Kennedy is also part of the first cohort of educators participating in New Hampshire Rocks!

Like Siegel in Keene, Kennedy said he has been wanting to grow Hinsdale’s music program, especially in the digital realm, since the district is working on a technology plan to provide all students with their own computer.

“[New Hampshire Rocks! is] an opportunity to get some training and some experience in an area that I have been looking to expand into anyway, and an area that fits well with what we’re doing with technology in the district,” Kennedy said. “... So I was really excited [to be selected] because I felt that this dovetailed really well with the vision I had in my head for what I could maybe do with classes.”

New Hampshire Rocks! is funded through a collaboration of the N.H. Department of Education, Little Kids Rock, Strafford-based Graystone Builders Inc. and Santana’s Milagro Foundation. In this first year, the initiative has received nearly $85,000, according to a news release from the Milagro Foundation.

Applications for the grant were open from mid-July to early August, and teachers learned of their acceptance into the program in mid-August. Schools were chosen based on criteria including their need and plans to incorporate elements of the program into their music curriculum.

The funding supports training for music teachers selected to participate, as well as new instruments for their schools, which will be determined on an individual basis.

“They’ll sit down and talk with us about what our needs might be, what might work best for us and our program and then supply us with a selection of, maybe, guitars or some keyboards or something like that, or ukuleles,” Kennedy said.

The schools don’t know yet when they’ll receive the instruments, but Siegel said he’s hoping Symonds will get a few nice guitars, including bass guitars, and a drum kit. Little Kids Rock, which operates in 44 states and Washington, D.C., focuses on modern band instruments like these to make music education more accessible to students, which is exactly what Siegel said he tries to do at Symonds.

“Music education is best when you’re meeting the students where they are at,” he said. “And I feel like music education often applies a curriculum to students that students don’t connect to. It’s all foreign, it’s all a foreign language.

“But when you can present something that is completely in their consciousness anyways — say we’re playing rock and roll, or we can actually cover a pop tune that they know — and at the same time you’re able to teach actual music concepts — then it really does what I’ve always aimed to do anyway, which is really just teaching kids to love music.”

Kennedy added that he is especially excited about the training he has already begun receiving and which runs throughout the school year. The training focuses on an online music-creation program known as a digital audio workstation, which is especially useful during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kennedy said, when school protocols restrict practices that music teachers often rely upon, like having students share equipment to show them how different instruments produce various sounds.

“You can change the instrument with a couple clicks of the mouse in the program and still get that experience but in a different way,” he said. “So, you’re having to kind of re-craft things and how you use them and what you use.”

This technology doesn’t apply as much at Symonds, which has students in kindergarten through 5th grade, Siegel said. But pandemic procedures in the Keene School District have led to smaller class sizes, which means students can get more experience on different instruments without having to share them.

“My average class right now is about eight kids, so it’s actually the perfect number to work with ... maybe three guitars, a bass [and] a couple of people on drums, at the same time,” Siegel said.

And with the inaugural class of New Hampshire Rocks! now underway, Siegel added that he hopes the program will only keep growing in the future.

“I feel like we’re going to set the trend,” he said. “And hopefully, in these next couple of years, there will be more money available for other educators to apply.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.