Teaching music to kids: One couple leads way in Independence

2011-02-21T00:00:00Z 2011-02-21T06:32:19Z Teaching music to kids: One couple leads way in IndependenceBy TERRY RINDFLEISCH / trindfleisch@lacrossetribune.com La Crosse Tribune

INDEPENDENCE - Pam and Craig Lehmeier are the musical foundation for school children in Independence. They are the only two music teachers for the 300 students in fifth grade through high school in the Independence School District. Pam teaches general and vocal music and Craig teaches band.

The couple lives in Independence, and they are active volunteers in the school and the community. But most of all, they are committed to opening up a world of musical adventure for children.

"Small schools deserve good teachers, too - and a good music education," Pam said. "It's not all sunshine and roses at a small school, but our job is to let students know what music can do for them.

"Music can change your life, so my students need to know the possibilities," she said.

Craig said he wants his students to be "good consumers of music" after high school - enjoying music as adults, going to concerts and singing in the church choir.

"We're teaching an appreciation and the value of music," he said.

Pam - the former Pam Young, a 1979 graduate of Melrose-Mindoro High School - is so committed to Independence schools that she stayed for good after she was hired right out of college from Winona State University in 1983.

"I love the kids and the school, and I decided to make my home here," Pam said.

Anne Gierok, Independence elementary and middle school principal, said the Lehmeiers have taught an appreciation for music and the arts.

"They teach students about how they can enjoy music in their lives," Gierok said. "They are passionate and dedicated as full members of this community. They are the backbone for community fundraisers and talent shows."

The Lehmeiers are concerned about the future of their music program. A school referendum issue failed by a 2-to-1 margin last week, and they expect deep cuts in the school budget.

When a funding referendum failed eight years ago, home economics was cut. They said they don't know if it is the music department's turn.

"It's bad enough with the state budget crisis and the governor, but this failed referendum means something has to go," Pam said. "We literally are praying to keep our jobs.

"We're already down to our skin and bones with our music budget," she said. "There's no funding for new music, and we've not had a new band instrument in eight years. We had hoped to have a repair budget."

The state budget crisis and the school referendum shows that the "funding of schools is broken, and we're just trying to get by," she said.

Pam was a band teacher during the last wave of cuts in 2003 after another school funding referendum failed. A general and vocal music position was cut in half, and the teacher decided to retire rather take a 50 percent pay cut.

Craig, a Winona native, was hired at an 80 percent position, replacing Pam as band director. Pam gave up her job to teach choral music and earned her vocal certification at Winona State University.

"We shared the same benefits, so some money was saved," she said. "It was tough to become a choral teacher. I wanted to be a band teacher since fifth grade."

Craig still has that 80 percent position, eight years later.

Pam met her husband, sitting next to him in the Winona Symphony Orchestra. She was first-chair bassoonist, and he was first-chair clarinetist. Craig was working on his master's degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and they began sharing a car ride from Independence to Winona.

"It was a friendship that blossomed," Pam said.

They were married in April 1993 at First Baptist Church in Winona. Craig arranged all the wedding music played by a 13-piece wind ensemble. Craig commuted to his band teaching jobs in Cumberland for 11/2 years and then to La Crosse, where he taught at Aquinas Middle School for five years.

"I had already been in Independence for 12 years, and I didn't want to move because I had strong ties here," Pam said. "Craig has grown to love the kids as I do."

Before Pam came to Independence 28 years ago, the school district had 13 band directors in 26 years.

"The kids are everything," Pam said. "Students grow to be great friends."

The Lehmeiers are flexible and creative in offering a variety of musical experiences. They tailor-make the experience to the students' talents and interests.

Craig had four boys recently form a band, and he helped them prepare to play for the Valentine's dance.

"Every so often we have a show choir, or jazz group if the kids are interested, so they get a taste of it," Pam said.

"I try to get students to sing every kind of music, to enjoy and experience it," she said.

Every once in a while, the Lehmeiers get some special students like Sam Backman, who is currently working on his master's degree in organ and liturgical music at Yale University.

Last week, Pam said she had two talented girls sing in Italian at the district solo/ensemble contest. One of the girls, senior Emily Stone, is Pam's teaching assistant.

"Mrs. Lehmeier is very good with students," Stone said. "She inspires us and encourages us to do our best."

Vanessa Kalk, a 1998 alumnus who studied theater for three years in college, said she cherished her high school musical experience. "I loved Mrs. Lehmeier as a teacher," Kalk said. "She made music fun and enjoyable."

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