In A Perfect World: Bringing Music To The Rim Country

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In Ron Sadlier's perfect world, the Payson Unified School District would offer orchestra classes at every grade level during the regular school day.

The town of Payson would be noted for its orchestra, featuring a strong strings section and performing at least two concerts a year. It would, of course, play classical music, but other kinds of music as well.

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Orchestra director Ron Sadlier has a dream -- that the town of Payson will one day be noted for its fine orchestra. Sadlier grew up in New Orleans, a community with a rich musical heritage.

"The more modern orchestras, like in Hollywood, use guitars and whatever's needed, and that's the type of orchestra I envision," Sadlier said "-- one that can play Mozart and Bach and pop and rock."

In the real world that Ron Sadlier lives in, he introduces some 65 kindergartners to the violin each year, but because of gaps in the program -- especially at the middle school level -- only three or four are still playing in high school.

As you might expect with such a high rate of attrition, Payson's Rim Civic Orchestra is currently defunct. And when it did exist, anybody could join with little or no consideration for talent or balanced instrumentation.

Sadlier, who has a master's degree in music education and has been teaching for 31 years, believes a quality orchestra is a critical component of any community.

"You can't nail it down with statistics, but it's a humanizing thing," Sadlier said. "What's the use of making money if you're not going to be human -- if you're not going to appreciate things. It just opens you up."

Sadlier, who is 78, has been teaching half-time for PUSD since Ileane Gonzales died three years ago.

"She was doing two half-time jobs with only one-half pay, doing both band and orchestra, and doing a very good job," Sadlier said. "She kind of spoiled the district."

Besides the kindergarten classes, Sadlier teaches orchestra in two of the three elementary schools, to sixth graders at the middle school, and to a very small group at Payson High School. He feels it's not enough to accomplish what he was led to believe he was hired to accomplish.

"I gathered from my initial interview that I was hired to build a district-wide orchestral program," he said. "If we are to achieve that goal, scheduling will have to be improved drastically."

Sadlier knows what it takes to build an orchestra program. He did it in the Tucson Amphitheater School District, and he has seen it done in rural communities as well.

"In the White Mountain area, there is a very, very strong program -- so strong they even have a symphony orchestra called the Silver Creek," he said. "It's sponsored by Northland Pioneer Community College, and it's a complete orchestra -- very well balanced with a very large strings section."

The multi-generational Silver Creek Symphony includes some accomplished middle school students in its string section.

"To me an orchestral program is a mark of prestige and the epitome of a fine arts program," Sadlier said.

Growing up in New Orleans, Sadlier came to appreciate music at an early age.

"I was a Depression boy," he said. "We couldn't afford instruments, but I had a little tin flute with six holes. There were notes I couldn't play that I knew were there and I had two thumbs and two pinkies doing nothing, so I poked holes in it to get those sounds."

Sadlier's father worked in a music store, and the sample records he brought home provided his son with exposure to a wide range of music. He also remembers his first encounter with a live symphony orchestra.

"One time when I was in high school a friend asked me if I wanted to go to a practice of the Tulane Symphony Orchestra," Sadlier said. "I had never even seen a cello. I just drank that music up, so I started taking the streetcar (it cost 7 cents) as often as I could to watch them practice."

Sadlier attended Loyola University where legendary New Orleans musicians Al Hirt and Pete Fountain were classmates.

"They had a fine music school located in an old three-story mansion," Sadlier said. "Lots of professional musicians went there."

Sadlier's instrument of choice is the French horn, although he also played some trumpet in a jazz band.

He even played some jobs with Hirt.

The issue Sadlier faces at PUSD is a lack of money for fine arts programs. In an era of state belt-tightening, his classes are funded by Credit for Kids monies, and as generous as Rim country residents have been, there's never enough to go around.

Sadlier is not sure there's an answer or what it might be, but he is interested in forming a music advocacy group that will work with him to explore some options for building both school and community orchestral programs.

"Would I ever welcome the help," he said.

Sadlier can also use volunteers to assist with his classes.

"People don't even have to have a musical background," he said. "There's still a lot they can do with the kids."

And, of course, the bottom line is money.

"We need instruments," he said. "We need money. People can donate money to the music program, and when they donate to Credit for Kids, they can specify the orchestra program."

Sadlier can be reached at 468-1757. His e-mail address is ronsadlier@bigplanet.com.

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