“It’s brought the engagement level way up, because the students can hold something in their hands,” said Laura Kuplic, the school’s full-time music teacher.

Funding for the keyboards came from the Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation’s Music Matters Grants. To receive the grant, Prince of Peace had enormous odds to beat – nationwide, more than 200 schools asked for $8 million, but Muzak had just $100,000 to allot, according to a company spokeswoman. The 30 recipient schools got $1,000 to $12,000 each.

“We didn’t have anything budgeted to buy new musical instruments,” said principal Judy Birlem. “So many of our budgeted dollars go to reading and math; for extra-curriculars, we try to get grants and donations from the community.”

Students in grades 6-8 have music class once a week, while younger students get two classes per week. A fourth-grade teacher, Lora Beebe, offers keyboard instruction as an after-school activity twice a month, and parish musician Juan Antonio Martin leads a weekly session in guitar, percussion or choir.

Prince of Peace has seen its enrollment increase from 377 students five years ago to 449 this year, and extra-curricular activities are helping fuel that growth, according to Birlem.

“Music is really important to the Hispanic families, and we want to tie it all together,” she explained.

Students come into the school’s program with a wide range of experience in music. Sixth-grader Carlos Cervantes had never played piano before this year, and classmate Sonia Rodriguez hadn’t played any instrument. Now, they’re hooked.

“It’s fun and easy to learn,” said Carlos. Sonia agreed that she expected that learning the keyboard would be more difficult than it’s turned out to be.
Meanwhile, seventh-grader Cynthia Montero is teaching herself to play piano at home and using her music time at school to improve.

“I was really happy when I found out we were getting the keyboards,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to learn to play classical music. It’s peaceful and dramatic.”

The middle-schoolers’ enthusiasm was apparent when Prince of Peace held its Christmas concert. The event packed the parish church on South 25th Street and was attended by a representative from Muzak, who formally presented the grant check.

“Generally, it’s pretty difficult to get sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to perform in the Christmas program, and this year we had 20 kids playing the keyboards to accompany the singing, and they also led singing and did speaking parts,” said Birlem.

Among the pieces performed was “Sing Noel,” featuring a simple rhythm that the musicians learned in just two weeks.

The keyboards have headphones so that students can hear what they are playing without disturbing others in the room. Instruction also is enhanced by watch-and-learn videos and software. More than 100 songs are programmed into the keyboards so students can play along; assorted beats and rhythms, and sound effects such as applause and the whop-whop-whop of helicopter blades are also included. Each keyboard also has a stand, putting it at the optimal height for playing rather than just being perched on a table.

Kuplic plans to create a workbook so that students can learn at their own pace and learn a song of their choice. She’s encouraging them to write their own rap music.

“Every musician needs to have keyboard knowledge to play any instrument. It helps with ear training; you can see the spaces between notes,” said Kuplic, a third-year teacher at Prince of Peace.

This marked the second year the school received a grant for musical instruments. In 2008, the Beihoff Fund, a supporter of music education in Milwaukee archdiocesan schools, awarded Prince of Peace $5,000. The grant largely paid for a set of percussion instruments known as Orff instruments – specifically, eight xylophones, four glockenspiels and two metallaphones.

The Orff instruments, as well as the 10 older keyboards, are kept at 25th Street for use by grades 1-5, Kuplic said.

Supporters of music in schools point to studies indicating better classroom skills in those who study music, and those at Prince of Peace say it’s true.

“I know that the structure and discipline required to practice helps kids in other ways,” Birlem said. “There’s a tie between the playing of the music and the notes, and the rhythm that helps them with processing mathematics.”

Kuplic said the fact that music requires hands-on learning gives students greater ownership in learning.

“Some of the hard-to-reach students, I’m able to reach them in this way that’s ‘cool,’ ” she explained.