Jyshir Plunkett, a rising junior at Martinsville High School, plays his saxophone in the band room at the school. Plunkett said instruments like his can be prohibitively expensive for many students. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

A group of students gathered one pleasant Monday morning to practice their drills in the parking lot behind Martinsville High School. 

Ranging in ages from 14 to 17, the students, part of the school’s 90-person band, practiced for hours on their movements before moving on to their instruments when the sun became too high and hot for comfort.

For two days a week, this is how these students spend their summer mornings, dedicating themselves to a craft that instructors like Brian Joyce and organizations like Rooster Walk, which supports an instrument program for local students, are trying to keep alive. 

“I believe all students should be able to participate in music,” Joyce said. 

It’s a sentiment that is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfill. More than 1 million elementary school students across the country do not have access to scholastic music programs, according to music education advocacy group Children’s Music Workshop. 

Laws regarding arts education vary from state to state. This is according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which looks at education trends from each state. 

A number of states, including Virginia, define art education as a core academic subject, while states like Alaska and Connecticut do not. Even so, Virginia does not require art education as a prerequisite for school accreditation, like Alabama and Maine do. 

Martinsville High School is among those that offer musical programs for students despite a decades-old fear of budget cuts due to diminished interest among students. That isn’t likely among Martinsville-Henry County students, according to Joyce.

The music director at the high school for eight years, Joyce said musical arts are as popular among students as they have always been. 

Brian Joyce leads Martinsville High School band members during one of their summer morning practices. Photo by Dean-Paul Stephens.

“I’ve always wanted to be in band because my older siblings were in band,” said Martinsville student Jyshir Plunkett, a rising junior who has been playing the saxophone for six years.

Plunkett’s interest in music and participation in Martinsville’s music program is characteristic of the school’s other musically inclined students, some of whom do not have access to instruments, especially the more expensive ones. The high school, according to Joyce, makes it a point to try to accommodate the students. 

“For most students, it’s a very big help because they can’t afford their instruments,” Plunkett said. 

According to a 2021 Rutgers University study, “Standing in the Gap,” which details trends in music education, music program instruments range from saxophones to string instruments. Pianos and flutes are counted in the study as the most popular among students. 

Prices for instruments vary, from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. While instruments like flutes can be found on the cheaper end of the spectrum, a name-brand piano like a Yamaha can cost several thousand dollars at the least. Pricier brands can cost upwards of $20,000. 

A saxophone can cost anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Plunkett said the school provided him with his instrument. 

Joyce said that the cost of instruments is a prohibitive factor for many students who want to participate in music programs. 

“In an ideal situation we ask students to provide their own instruments, unless it is one of the bigger instruments,” Joyce explained, adding that bigger instruments, like the French horn or tuba, are usually provided by the school. 

For students who want to specialize in flutes and other smaller instruments, assistance isn’t as straightforward. 

“We have several students … who use school instruments due to economic factors in the area,” Joyce said, explaining that if a student can’t afford an instrument the school tries to provide one. 

In Henry County, median household income is $41,103, just over half of the state’s $80,615, according to recent census figures. The census also identifies 17% of Henry County’s population as falling in the poverty threshold, compared to 10.2% of the state’s population. In Martinsville, median household income is $36,832 while a quarter of residents are considered living in poverty. 

Joyce knows that for many of his prospective students, spending hundreds of dollars on an instrument simply isn’t an option, which is why he said his music program tries to bridge the gap. 

To this end, Joyce relies on a key ally to get instruments into students’ hands. 

“Rooster Walk has been a blessing to music education,” Joyce said. 

Rooster Walk was held last month near Martinsville. Photo by Carole Tarrant.

An annual music festival that features performances by local and national acts, Rooster Walk has become a mainstay in Henry County since its inaugural event in 2009. In 2010, festival organizers began the Rooster Walk Music Instrument Program, through which the organization collects and refurbishes old instruments and donates them to Martinsville High School. 

The program was created to honor the memory of Todd Eure, a friend of festival organizers. In addition to collecting and refurbishing instruments, the program also provides grants to a number of local schools including Martinsville Middle, Laurel Park Middle, Fieldale-Collinsville Middle, Magna Vista High School and Bassett High School. 

While neither Joyce nor Rooster Walk officials could give an exact estimate on how many instruments have been donated, Joyce described the festival and its program as impactful. 

“The Rooster Walk instrument donation program has been a great help to the band students in Martinsville,” Joyce said. “Through this program, we have been able to get students instruments, help students with instrument repairs, and to get new sound equipment for the MHS Jazz Band.”  

Representatives of Rooster Walk did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this story.

Joyce said this kind of program is one of the reasons why Martinsville has managed to maintain a music program throughout his 23 years teaching music. 

Joyce said maintaining a music program is a bit easier when there are community allies. He hopes music programs will maintain relevance so that future students will continue being able to support the musical interests of future students. He added that he hoped officials understood the importance of this. 

“I believe that all students should be able to participate in music,” Joyce said. “The benefits of participating in a music program go well beyond brain development and increased standardized test scores as shown in numerous studies.  Music allows students to come out of their shell, have a place to belong, and gives students a way to be creative while having fun working with others.” 

Dean-Paul Stephens is a reporter for Cardinal News. He is based in Martinsville. Reach him at dean@cardinalnews.org...