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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

Outreach programs help bridge the gap between middle and high school students in the music program

MESH, or Music Education @ Saratoga High, was founded in 2010 by alumnus Walter Hsiang and is currently led by president Jayden Ham

Now that the marching band season is over, it may seem as if the school’s band has mellowed down in activity, with no more long after-school rehearsals dragging late into the night. However, a quick peek into the music building at any time after school reveals quite the opposite — practice rooms are filled with musicians practicing for auditions and taking private lessons.

These spaces are not limited to just Saratoga High’s musicians — students from Redwood Middle are also beginning to make their way in and out of the campus for music-related activities. Whether to take lessons from their high school MESH (Music Education @ Saratoga High) mentors or to hang out with their assigned buddies from the PAS (Pen Pals @ Saratoga High) program, music students of all ages have already begun getting to know their future classmates and peers.

MESH, a mentoring organization founded back in 2010, gave high schoolers in the SHS music program the opportunity to go to RMS and sometimes elementary schools to give younger students private lessons to build fundamental skills in music. After a pause during the pandemic, MESH returned to in-person instruction last year, transitioning to having lessons at the SHS music building after school.

Currently, under the leadership of president Jayden Ham, a junior, the program has 106 mentors and 110 mentees who operate within the music building’s many practice rooms that are all open to the public.

After being paired with one or more mentees who play the same instrument, MESH mentors can decide to meet whenever they want and for as long as they want, which helps the program’s middle schoolers get individualized support. Sophomore Barbara Vasilyeva, for example, started out as a mentee in sixth grade and currently mentors four saxophone students. Vasilyeva said she has found just as much growth as a teacher as she did when she was a student.

“Looking back on my journey from middle school to now, it definitely feels like a huge achievement,” she said. “MESH allowed me to discover and build my love for teaching, and now I actually want to pursue music education in the future,”

While MESH mentors like Vasilyeva are primarily orchestra and band students, Ham and the rest of the MESH leadership team hope to expand the program beyond just orchestra and band — this year, Ham is working with choir and color guard leadership to increase MESH’s range. In addition, Ham is working closely with Redwood’s band director, Jon Jow, to coordinate times for high schoolers to help advise the middle school marching band, another aspect of the mentoring that was lost after the pandemic.

According to Ham, MESH’s impact on the band program has been undeniable, especially with a historically large freshman class size of 76 this fall. Year after year, the effects of having each generation of musicians train the next quickly becomes obvious even at the start of the season, he said.

“With so many freshmen in the marching band this year, we saw a huge benefit from students already knowing each other [because of MESH] and having at least a bit of experience with the activity,” Ham said.

On the other hand, PAS, the pen pal program, takes on a more personal approach to forming connections with middle schoolers early on. Founded by Vasilyeva and sophomore Kathy Chen last year, the program also pairs up SHS and eighth grade band students but focuses on helping middle schoolers get prepared for the marching band in the fall by getting to know each other through an old-fashioned method. With most of the incoming freshman class paired with at least one buddy, PAS has more than 30 active groups that connect through apps like Messenger.

“We noticed there’s definitely a little bit of a gap that you need to bridge in order to get really immersed in [high school] marching band,” Chen said. “And so we just wanted to allow these eighth graders to have a smooth transition between the two very different environments.”

Through PAS, eighth graders can also get to know their high school buddies beyond the world of music and learn about what it’s like to be a student at SHS in general. To facilitate student bonding, PAS held a gathering during June that brought its 37 pen pal pairs together in-person, an event that Vasilyeva and Chen hope to host once or twice a year going into the future. 

The idea of using social events to give middle schoolers a sneak peak of the high school musician’s experience is a long-standing tradition that culminates with the band’s annual marching band kickoff in June, organized by music director Jason Shiuan. Meant as a way to introduce new members to the rest of the program, the kickoff includes section bonding time, games and a pizza party.

Although the band’s tight-knit community helps freshmen to get to know their peers over the school year, Shiuan has found that student-run programs and social gatherings help speed up the process. As outreach programs like MESH and PAS continue to gain members, he says that these organizations will continue to play a key role in the development and success of the music program as a whole.

“Marching band in high school is a completely different experience compared to what it is in middle school, so these programs help welcome members and let them know what it’s all about,” Shiuan said.

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