New Orchestra Leading Music's Revival In Island Schools

David Creed •

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The COVID-19 pandemic created many obstacles for island schools to overcome, and the limitations it brought to the ability to teach music were at the top of that list. When Eddie Wilkins moved to the island two years ago to become the Nantucket Intermediate School’s new music teacher, he wanted to do whatever he could to not only get island kids involved with the existing band and chorus programs, but to also introduce an orchestra made up of string instruments at the elementary school level.

Now for the first time in history, the island's public schools have a full-fledged orchestra program with 62 students participating.

“I really wanted to bring an orchestra program and strings here because yes, a lot of the students will gravitate towards the traditional instruments like the clarinet, the flute, and the alto sax trumpet, but there are other students who want to play an instrument but those just aren’t their cup of tea, so why not offer them strings,” Wilkins said.

After working tirelessly last year with the school’s scheduling committee, Wilkins has made the orchestra a reality as it is currently in the midst of its first year. Its 62 participating students is more than the school band (61) and chorus (56).

“He has a great brain for scheduling as well where he can fit this all in so kids aren’t missing things like math to go to orchestra,” NIS principal Evemarie McNeil said. “Eddie’s talent came through in the interview process and his passion, along with his experience made him a top candidate. He isn’t just saying let’s do this. He is saying let me figure out how we can do this.”

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About 60 percent of NIS students are participating in either band, orchestra, or chorus. There is also a general music course that every NIS student participates in on a weekly basis.

Wilkins said the number of students participating in band have floated around the 20 to 30 range in the past, but have climbed significantly post-COVID. Teacher Allison Ritter has anchored a revival of the chorus program, which has grown from seven students to 56. Wilkins and McNeil both spoke very highly of her dedication to the students, with McNeil saying that Ritter will leave the elementary school in the morning to teach students at the intermediate school.

The music program has also gotten a major boost from Nantucket superintendent Beth Hallett. She has not only been supportive of the expansion, but as a musician herself. Hallett has gone into the district’s music classrooms to play her violin with students.

McNeil said that one significant difference in the music programs at NIS now compared to years past is that they are offered during school hours while they used to only be offered before or after school. She said because many students rely on bus transportation, it stripped them of the ability to participate in band which led to smaller numbers than they are seeing now.

“One of the things that was important to me was that if we are going to offer these types of things, every child needs to have the opportunity to participate,” McNeil said. “We have to remove the barriers and some of those barriers included young students whose only transportation to and from school is the bus. The other barrier we have removed is money. It costs money to rent these instruments if you are in band or orchestra and there are scholarships for those kiddos. I would say our participation rates are as high as they are and our groups are as diverse as they are and include all ages because we have worked so hard to remove the barriers and have all of the rehearsals occur during school hours. That is what I think I am most proud of.”

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The instruments used in the orchestra were all donated by members of the Nantucket community, Wilkins said, including violins, violas, and cellos. Wilkins had every student begin the year playing a string instrument to give them an idea of whether they'd be interested in orchestra or not.

“I want to give kids more of an opportunity than I ever did in elementary school,” said Wilkins, who has been a music teacher for 11 years. “Whether that branches out, maybe it sparks somebody to be a professional violinist one day or a professional flute player sure, but really just so that they are appreciative of it and getting the access of music through different means.”

Wilkins’ impact hasn’t just been with the orchestra, but with the band as well. Wilkins recalled a moment earlier this year when one of his students wanted to play the trumpet, but the student's family said no because they couldn’t afford it. The student approached Wilkins a couple of times, which prompted Wilkins to think outside the box to come up with a solution.

“I went onto eBay and found something playable for $100 but it was missing a couple parts,” he said. “I went into the junk bin in our room, pulled a couple of parts, and now the kid has a Frankensteined trumpet that works. If we can build an instrument library where we don’t have to do that and we have a plethora of instruments floating through the schools, and then ultimately take that cost barrier away entirely, that would be huge. There is clearly a demand here.”

Wilkins said the plan for orchestra players who move on from NIS in the coming years will be for them to join the middle school band and create a “borchestra.” He said he will be curious to see where these numbers are next year after students have gone through a full year with their string instrument and whether they increase, decrease, or stay the same. He said if they can reach a point where about half of NIS students continue playing at the high school level, the music programs will be in a great place.

McNeil said exposing students to music early on in their educations will only help them expand their creative minds and potentially help a student discover their passion.

“Having this huge exposure to all these opportunities at a young age is the greatest gift because it helps kids find out where they fit and if you go forward with it, more students can find their place in the musical world and continue on to middle school and high school,” she said. “We are all about educating the whole child and while we can easily say that, we have to do it. I think this introduction to music at a young age will definitely propel some students to find their place, their passion, and keep going with it. If you are never exposed to it, you are never going to think to do it if no one in your family does it.”

McNeil said adding an additional music teacher to focus on the string players and adding a late bus if/when the bus shortage is resolved so they can begin offering additional music opportunities after school are the next steps she sees in the continued growth of her school's music programs.

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Pep Band Coming To NHS?

High school music teacher Tom Peppard is watching what is going on closely at NIS and is also working hard to help expand the musical options for his students at NHS. Peppard moved here with Wilkins two years ago and has his own ambition: to begin a Nantucket High School/Community Pep Band to play at Whaler football games as early as next fall.

“The numbers in band right now are growing in the younger grades but I am still kind of waiting for that COVID bubble to pass,” said Peppard, who is in his eighth year overall as a music teacher. “What we want to do is start a drum line because I know Nick Hayden at the middle school has a really great percussion ensemble. I think getting kids interested and getting a drum line for home football games, which would be three or four days out of the year, would be a great start.

“But then I do want to do a pep band," he added. "That way we don’t have any marching obligations. They can just go to the games and play. We want to do it as a club/community thing because I don’t have the numbers for a pep band right now so if the community gets involved, we could have people come with their instruments to the game and add to the experience.”

Peppard said if he can’t get the numbers for a pep band he will focus his attention on the drum line and use that as his foundation.

“If I can get just a few kids interested and a few community members as well to come to the game and play, we could start this pep band next fall,” he said.

Peppard said the orchestration for this pep band would likely be woodwind instruments found in a concert band such as the clarinet and saxophone, along with instruments such as the trumpet, trombone, and tuba. If he can access electricity from the bleachers, he said he could add a guitar and piano to the group as well.

Adding new programs will be one the ways Nantucket's schools' will attempt to bring students back into music after COVID-19 forced so many limitations on when, where, and how students could play in band and eliminated student’s ability to sing in chorus outside of an occasional outdoor session.

“It is about getting those foundations back,” Peppard said. “Music and playing an instrument is valuable in the context of being able to touch all the other subjects where we go through the science of sound waves, the mathematics of dividing beats. I go through the history of the music itself. I go through the language barriers that are present where it is Italian, French, or German on paper and we translate all of that. It also comes down to students being able to emotionally express themselves and being able to identify emotions and project them. I think my classroom is a safe place for a lot of people in the school. I know a few students who spend their whole day here.”

Peppard has already begun looking into and studying the music that would be played in this pep band. Students are also being familiarized with it as well in class.

If any of our readers have spare band or orchestra instruments they are willing to share, please reach out to Eddie Wilkins at

If you have any interest in participating with the NHS Pep Band in some way, email Tom Peppard at

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