“They’re in control of it. It does no good if I am.” – Richard Maxwell
During my middle school years, I had a typical public school music program experience. I recall squeezing into the gaudy, uncomfortable uniforms that cost more than our instruments.
Having 60-plus measures of rest during the slower, symphonic pieces was a bore (I was a drummer at the time). And when one unreliable person had a solo and messed it up, I felt the urge to launch my sticks at them like dynamite.
Arcadia High School in Phoenix offers a music program I only dream I could have been a part of.
I walk into the music room and my jaw drops. The walls are plastered with posters of Queen, The Who, Iron Maiden, and other legendary artists. There’s a legitimate stage in the back of the room, complete with trusses, lighting, mike stands, and a drum kit. Students sit at their desks, tickling away at MIDI keyboards, watching sheet music come to life on Apple computer screens.
Before we get started with the interview, teacher Richard Maxwell leads me and other fellow Sun Devils into a room, where a female student showcases a track she has recorded in Pro Tools. In another room, a male student plays a sitar-like instrument called a dilruba, which he bought from India.
“These kids are spoiled,” Maxwell says. “I am jealous of these kids on a level I can’t express.”
Maxwell founded the Contemporary Music and Sound (CMAS) (Facebook page) program after being a band director and guitar teacher for ten years. Arcadia students asked if he could teach them songwriting and recording techniques. He decided to create a music program that integrated all these elements. Maxwell gave his proposal to the Career and Technical Education (CTE) department at the district, and they gave him $25,000 to get started.
“I miss the full symphonies, I really do,” Maxwell says. “But the cost of the program was astronomical. The marching band uniforms alone would exceed the cost of all the gear, down to the last cable.”
He then explains to me how a a recording station, including the computer, recording software, equipment, cables, and an instrument plugged into it would cost $2,000 and could serve 18 students. A low-grade tuba that can only be used by one student would cost $5,000.
His class is working on a CD that will be released in December. They perform in nearly tour-quality settings, complete with lighting, fog machines, and video projection. And they’re all playing music they enjoy.
Maxwell focuses on contemporary music for a reason:
“That’s where everybody is,” he says. “I knew of a phenomenal trumpet player who played classical music, but he didn’t have Beethoven or Brahms on his iPod. He would listen to Metallica.”
Maxwell said he believes in two types of music: good and bad. But, in those two types, style is not a factor.
“It doesn’t depend on the style,” he says. “I don’t believe that one type of music is more legitimate than the other. Why shouldn’t [the students] be able to pursue it? This is all about what they wanna do.”