County's first elementary school music teacher set to retire

June 10, 2002|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Elena Rowe's love of music bloomed in Darleen Smith's classroom at Lincolnshire Elementary School, the South Hagerstown High School senior said.

Smith - the first music teacher in Washington County elementary schools - taught Elena and her classmates more than basic musical concepts. She taught them to love all kinds of music, appreciate it for the creative outlet music offers and work hard to achieve their artistic goals, said Elena, 17.

Smith, 57, will retire June 30 after 36 years as a music teacher in Washington County.

She leaves knowing that she met the most important goals she set for herself as a music educator: To teach students that music can strike emotional chords in all people and that musical performance can be a source of pride for them.


"I tell my kids that if music hasn't touched them in some way, I haven't done my job," said Smith, of Hagerstown.

"I think the arts help us find the good in ourselves," she said. "I've seen a lot of growth in a lot of kids. It's neat to see them get so excited about themselves."

Smith in 1966 began teaching music lessons in a childless classroom - a black-and-white television studio at the Board of Education. She waited her turn in the hallway to record the live broadcasts for third- and fourth-grade students throughout the county in the days before music merited a place in the county's elementary schools, Smith said.

"This was a money-saving thing," she said. "You didn't have to put music and art teachers in the classroom because we were on TV."

Thousands of youngsters watched Smith play the piano, sing and teach basic music concepts from 1966 until 1974. She visited one school per week as a follow-up to her televised lessons.

"You could go to the grocery store and all these little kids would mob you," Smith laughed.

Television teaching gave her plenty of time to keep up with the latest trends in music, structure her lessons and search for new resources, Smith said, but she wanted to provide hands-on instruction and impart to students the esteem-building power of performance.

"I knew what an impact that had had on my own education," she said.

Smith remembered the pride she felt while performing for her second-grade classmates soon after taking her first piano lessons. During her teenage years, she provided piano accompaniment to choral director Bill Makell's singers at North Hagerstown High School and for the Antietam Choral Society.

"I think I learned more from Mr. Makell than I did at school. He just opened my musical horizons to all styles of music," Smith said.

Like her mentor, she hoped to share her enthusiasm for music with students after she graduated from the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Smith said.

Ready for the classroom but still waiting for the county to start an elementary music program, Smith said she took a job as a music teacher at Springfield Middle School in Williamsport in 1974.

She built Springfield's choral program during her seven years at the school, Smith said, giving hundreds of students a creative outlet.

Former middle school student Penny Sprecher said her self-esteem flourished in Smith's classroom.

"She really made me think I could sing," said Sprecher, 36, now a teacher at Lincolnshire Elementary School in Halfway. "She always had a kind smile and encouraging words. She made me feel confident as a student and she made me feel the same way as a new teacher. She's just a wonderful person."

Smith returned to television from 1981 to 1984 - this time on videotape and in color.

The county had whittled down the scope of its television teaching program, but upgraded its studio equipment and technology to include such special effects as split screens and wipes, Smith said.

She worked closely with a director to develop lessons and taped them for broadcast in local schools. Smith also helped develop a series of 72 music lessons that the county Board of Education then marketed to other school systems, she said.

Smith took advantage of new resources - including a new stage, classroom and stringed instruments - when she returned to Smithsburg Middle School in 1984, she said.

"It was fun to go back, but I was still waiting for them to put music in the elementary schools," Smith said.

She waited three years, during which period teachers' need for more planning time during the school day helped grease the opening for arts programs in elementary schools. The county in 1987 launched a music pilot program at Lincolnshire and Paramount elementary schools. Smith taught the classes.

She relished the chance to work with enthusiastic younger children in the "more upbeat" elementary school atmosphere despite having to shuttle between two schools and work off a portable cart, she said.

"I was so excited because I had waited all my career to do this. It was wonderful," Smith said.

The program gradually expanded to the current 17 instructors now teaching music to elementary school students in Washington County, said Smith, who took a permanent position at Lincolnshire in 1988.

Since then, the county's elementary music program has struggled with critics who dismiss the educational importance of the arts. The "firm foundation" upon which middle- and high-school music students built their skills crumbled when county education officials decided in the mid-1990s to end instrumental music instruction in elementary schools, Smith said.

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