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Empresa Rocks

Empresa's Music Program Shines for Nearly 20 Years


Parents and educators at Empresa Elementary School have always made music a priority.

All students there get weekly music classes that include lessons about music theory, history and technique. Of course, there’s plenty of hands-on experience playing musical instruments as well.

“I think the music program has really become Empresa’s identity,” Principal Cheree McKean said.

Parents there work throughout the year to raise enough money to pay for a full-time music teacher, who gives the students 30- to 40-minute lessons on a rotating basis each week. Rich Cook, a jazz trumpeter, has taught the lessons for the last 16 years.

He started out working 17 hours a week with recorders and drums and now works “full time and then some” with a collection that includes guitars, drums, xylophones, and various other instruments.

Students said they enjoy the lessons for a variety of reasons.

“Mr. Cook is a really fun teacher, and he teaches us a lot of new things,” said Tori Blackburn, a fifth-grader at the school.

The children may not even realize that they’re learning important concepts that will help them in other subjects, such as math, history and English, McKean said.

“Music is that common denominator for children,” she said. “Music reaches their hearts, and once we reach their hearts, we can reach their minds.”

Other students said that knowing how to play instruments has helped boost their self-confidence.

“The biggest thing that it has taught me it how to come out of my shell,” said Billy Schassberger, another fifth-grader at the school.

Knowing how to play an instrument can help focus better in their other classes, said Ronda Bishop, who teaches fifth-grade at the school.

It also unifies the school, she said.

“It makes us a close-knit family,” she said.

Isaiah Jones, a student in Bishop’s class, said he’s particularly interested in the historical aspect of what they learn in their music classes.

“It’s important to know about music,” he said. “It takes you back to the days of jazz and stuff. It’s exciting.”

McKean attributes the schools low rate of tardy and absent students in part to the music lessons, which can reach the children who aren’t as interested in other subjects.

“They love coming to school because of this,” she said.

In addition to the classes that are part of the school day, Cook also offers weekly lessons before school for $$ a year that include choir, wind band, percussion and guitar.

The school’s choir recently performed the national anthem before a Padres game at Petco Park and at other public events.

Not only do students learn about music, some also are learning about the technical side of putting on a show with lessons on how to operate sound and lighting equipment.

“A lot of the stuff we do in here, you don’t typically see unless you’re in music ed in college,” he said.

Find out more about the program and performances here.