Minneapolis’ Edison High School music teacher Lesley Earles started a drum line and a band class after a group of students expressed interest in them as she was walking through the school halls.
And when students in the International Baccalaureate program couldn’t sign up for a music class because it conflicted with their regular schedule, she started a before-school jazz band and asked the community and local high schools to donate their musical instruments.
Over the years, Earles has managed to keep a dying music program alive at Edison by seeking the community’s support, tapping into students’ interests and teaching music through different styles and instruments.
“Music is everything,” she said. “It’s language, it’s math, it’s physics, and a lot of our students find that this is a space where they can thrive.”
Since Earles began teaching at the school six years ago, Edison’s music program has expanded and become more popular. The band class ballooned from 16 students to more than 61 kids in six different ensembles. Now about 250 students — a quarter of the student body — take classes in beginning band, jazz band, concert band, beginning and advanced drum line and rock band, all taught by Earles.
Her students range from those with experience and advanced music skills to those who are playing instruments for the first time. Professional guest artists frequent Earles’ classroom, teaching students how to express and harness their musical skills and improve their career outlook.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever have the next professional musician or another music educator, which would be wonderful, but what is important to me is that after high school I get students who appreciate music and are advocates for it,” she said.
Music for everyone
Earles was born in Iowa to a musical family. Her father, a recently retired pastor, plays the guitar. Her mother was a church organist and a piano teacher.
In third grade, Earles was tapped by her oldest brother’s high school band director to help with their program because the brazen little girl couldn’t stop pointing out all the things that were wrong with their performance. At 11, Earles and her family moved to Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota for two years before transferring to the University of Northwestern-St. Paul, where she earned a degree in music education.
Earles struggled to find a job after graduating from college. For three years, she worked as a substitute music teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. But it was at Edison where she found her niche. The students were friendly, and staff supported and trusted her.
Edison then had only one music elective class: concert band. And Earles was tasked with teaching it.
The equipment was old and all the pianos in her class had broken keyboards. She replaced them with 25 brand-new digital pianos, and in a few months she was promoted to a full-time position, teaching more than five classes a day. This meant she had to build the class instructions from scratch and pull students into the program. She also had to teach Northeast Middle School students for the one year they didn’t have a music teacher.
“Lesley’s philosophy is music for absolutely everyone,” Northeast Principal Eryn Warne said. “So she kept it alive even at our middle school.”
Maintaining music programs in urban school districts is no small feat, as they are often among the first to be slashed when money is tight. To take the pressure off the Minneapolis school district, Earles relied on donations to support the growing program.
Her biggest donation came recently from the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, which awarded her students flutes, clarinets, bassoons and other instruments worth nearly $33,000. The foundation donates musical instruments to students across the nation, particularly those from low-income communities.
“I’ve always wanted to be the next Mr. Holland,” Earles said, referring to the main character in the movie about a selfless music teacher who touches the lives of many young people.
Creating a community
On a recent afternoon, Earles and her students were rehearsing for a musical performance called “Newsies,” set in New York City at the turn of the century.
The students play newspaper boys — many of whom are orphaned — who go on strike after the newspaper publisher raises the prices of the paper. In the end, they reach a deal that works for everyone. The intense musical has a lot of moving parts, which meant students had to collaborate not only with Earles, but also vocal and choir directors, a choreographer and other artists.
Earles’ classroom, an old gym converted into a music room that’s tucked in the basement of the school, serves as a good space to practice anything noisy. Musical instruments adorn the soundproof classroom, which has three built-in practice rooms and an office. There are no clusters of desks, allowing students, particularly those with physical disabilities, to move in and out freely. Music, Earles said, provides a refuge for students with mental health issues and has helped some of her shy students find their voices.
Earles’ colleagues say what makes her stand out the most is not just the music community she created within Edison, but the one she created outside of it. She started a Northeast festival, which has been bringing together elementary and middle schools for the past three years to perform.
And when students are not in school performing, on tours or at homecoming, Earles takes them to nursing homes in the neighborhood to play music.
“She has sort of a limitless energy for doing projects outside of school, which is what this requires,” said choir teacher Stacey Athorn. “Lesley is so committed to the entire process, which is amazing because it means that the students get the support they need to be successful.”