Opinion: Changes to Docksiders lead to new era in GHS music


Jason Grow

The GHS Docksiders perform at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport.

MILA BARRY, Staff Writer

Music education, as with most forms of art education, can be difficult to pin down.  There’s no perfect formula for making music; no algorithm to create a well-versed young instrumentalist.  Even in cases where a talented director has the right ideas, rarely are music programs given the attention and funding necessary to foster them.

These are issues that the Gloucester Public School music program has faced for years.  Plagued with inconsistencies since the program was cut from the high school level in 2004, there’s been unbalanced success in rehabilitating it.  Finally, this year, under the leadership of strong directors at both the middle school and high school, the GPS music program is looking to begin some major transitions.  It’s a turning point for music education in Gloucester.

The Gloucester High School Docksiders are becoming audition-based.  

This news has sparked a lot of interest in the community.  Many have voiced concerns about the fate of passionate student-musicians who do not make the cut.  But the decision to make The Docksiders audition based was not a bad one. It was simply a controversial action taken to make progress toward a greater goal.

The Docksiders were founded in 2001.  Motivated by the lack of a school ensemble, a group of students, including current O’Maley Middle School band director, Carlos Menezes Jr., set out to make a change.  Luckily, Docksiders director-to-be David Adams stepped up to help.  Under his direction and guidance, they were able to establish The Docksiders we know today. 

“By (my) Sophomore year band class (and all other music-based classes) were dropped due to funding,” Menezes explained, “Junior year the Docksiders were established as after-school ensemble with the help of Mr. Adams. His motivation, passion, and inspiration allowed us to grow the ensemble into a flourishing performance “Stage band” our Senior Year.”

Adams was eventually hired to direct the band, and did so successfully until his retirement in 2014.  

The Docksiders have become a staple at the high school.  But based on low enrollment, and a slim budget, the group has never had to worry about expanding.

To some extent this isn’t a bad thing; if the system isn’t broken, why fix it?  But there are issues with the program that The Docksiders, by the nature of their ensemble, can’t address.  Menezes cited several.

“(These include) the lack of a concert band or wind ensemble as a primary course offering. We know the current set up of a Docksiders-centric program is exclusive to specific instrument types.”

In addition, The Docksiders have a relatively limited repertoire, playing mainly jazz, swing, and latin tunes.

Both Daniel Fleury (The Docksiders director) and Menezes are working to fix issues like these at the high school and middle school levels.

“We want to make music classes accessible to everyone in the school,” explained Fleury.  

Menezes has been very successful in this mission.

“At the middle school, my focus is on fun,” said Menezes. “If we can make music fun during one of the hardest times in our lives, there is a good chance many of us will go on to continue making music.”

He’s proven himself to be correct.  The number of kids in the O’Maley band and chorus has grown exponentially in the last few years.  Next years’ incoming group is expected to have upwards of 40 students. And this huge growth has started to effect the high school.  The Docksiders cannot accommodate all the prospective 8th graders who want to continue playing.

This influx of students has forced The Docksiders to become audition-based.  

“In the beginning, The Docksiders worked because we’d only get 20-25 students in total playing at the high school level,” said Menezes, “Times are beginning to change!”

This change also will allow the band to graduate to more rigorous material and emulate the norm for a high school jazz ensemble.

Unfortunately, though, this purpose has not been very well advertised.  Many of this years 8th graders who did not make the cut feel rejected. Their only alternative is to join the Lab Ensemble, about which little is known.

“To them, it feels like an invitation to the “B-Squad”,” explained Menezes.  

But Fleury has big plans for the so called “B-Squad”.

“The goal of lab ensemble is to slow things down, play everyday, focus on fundamentals, and play more difficult music.  Eventually we want it to become the larger of the two bands. For the first few years the Docksiders will be larger but eventually (we will grow it). They will (definitely) play at the holiday concert, the spring concert, and will likely perform more than that.”

The Lab Ensemble could be the opportunity that GHS needed to address the issues The Docksiders could not.  This could become our “umbrella ensemble”; the concert band that Gloucester has lacked for over a decade.

There can be no reward without risk, and this is a risky maneuver.  If nobody joins Lab Ensemble, the flow of incoming middle school players will slow to a stop.   The flow of talented musicians from Lab Ensemble to The Docksiders will fizzle out.

The change has the potential to make or break the music program.  The deciding factor will be those students who join this new, yet unestablished ensemble.  Though its nature is unclear, its fate will be determined by those who make it up.

“My hope has always been that my students leave O’Maley feeling empowered by their musicianship and inspired to make music,” said Menezes.  

To all prospective 8th grade musicians– this is your chance to capitalize on your musical empowerment.  New and unclear means open to interpretation. Initiatives at the middle school, such as innovation projects, have given you experience exploring and self-guiding in music. It is my hope, (and would only be prudent) for your opinions to be considered when deciding how Lab Ensemble will run in the future.  

Menezes said it best.

“Here’s what I think of Lab Ensemble: JUST DO IT! The problem with The Docksiders is A GOOD THING! EMBRACE where we are headed and allow Lab Ensemble to grow into that larger ensemble that feeds smaller chamber groups and combos. I do not doubt that Lab Ensemble is the next step in growing music at GHS.”