Nineteen fifth-graders at Jefferson Elementary are learning how to play the mandolin because their vocal music teacher, Emily Roemmich, had a “Why not?” moment.
That moment came when Mary Unger, whose duties include being the grant development facilitator for the Grand Island Public Schools, let teachers know they could apply for Fender grants to buy mandolins.
Actually, Roemmich’s thought process went deeper than “Why not?” When she was a student in the Wayne Public Schools, she played saxophone and clarinet in the school band, as well as violin in the school orchestra. Her parents also paid for years of private piano lessons.
Roemmich said she wanted to provide something of the same opportunity for fifth-graders at Jefferson.
Mandolins are not a traditional school instrument, but Roemmich said she still thought that playing any type of instrument might help stir her fifth-graders’ interest in playing a traditional band instrument or orchestra instrument when they begin attending Walnut Middle School next year.
Roemmich said she briefly thought about using the Fender grant program to buy ukuleles, but she opted for the mandolin because the string arrangement for mandolins is closer to a violin’s string arrangement.
The fifth-graders could decide whether they wanted to try to play the mandolin, because Roemmich works with students from 2 to 2:45 p.m. each Wednesday, after the end of the regular school day. Grand Island’s K-5 schools dismiss at 2 p.m. Wednesdays so elementary teachers can have some planning time.
But just as Roemmich ended up having to do some serious thinking about whether she wanted to fill out a grant application to Fender, she also wanted her fifth-graders to do some thinking about whether they really wanted to try to learn how to play the mandolin.
As a result, she made the fifth-graders apply for the after-school mandolin lessons by writing a paragraph to explain why they wanted to play the mandolin.
Roemmich said at least some of the mandolins arrived at Jefferson last spring. However, students only got to try playing them for six weeks before the end of the school year came.
She said the fifth-graders’ playing abilities are still fairly rudimentary. “We’re spending a lot of time strumming,” she said.
However, Roemmich said she has hopes that her fifth-graders might be ready to perform on their mandolins during Jefferson’s spring program, which is an event performed both for students and for the parents of Jefferson students. She said she even dreams about having her fifth-graders going out to nursing homes to play on their mandolins.
However, she acknowledged, “We’re not ready yet.”
There is no doubt that the students are enjoying their mandolins, though. Jefferson Elementary is a continuous calendar school, which means its student have the same number of school days as students in other GIPS elementary schools, but Jefferson students have a shorter break over the summer. That break is then supplemented by some short breaks during the school year that the regular calendar schools don’t have.
Roemmich said her students took their mandolins home so they could practice during the break. Two of those students were Dominick Flores and Cassandra Lozano. Dominick said that he applied to be one of the students in the mandolin group because he believed that he would be good at playing the instrument.
He said he took his mandolin home during break because he didn’t want to be without it while school wasn’t in session.
Cassandra said she applied for the mandolin group simply because she felt she would like to play an instrument.
Both Dominick and Cassandra said they practiced with their mandolins during the school break.
When asked how her parents feel about her playing the mandolin, Cassandra said they like it because they want her to play some type of instrument when she moves up to middle school next year. She noted that her sister is a freshman at Grand Island Senior High who plays flute in the high school band.
Dominick said that after playing mandolin at Jefferson, he would like to play a band instrument when he goes on to middle school next year.
Roemmich, who has taught six years in the Grand Island school system, got her bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and her master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
She said music education majors at all of Nebraska public universities and colleges get endorsements to teach either vocal or instrumental music at all grade levels. Roemmich said that when she was a student at UNK, she was certain she was going to teach in middle school. Then she had her student teaching experiences at Meadowlark Elementary and Emerson Elementary in Kearney.
“I fell in love with elementary kids,” Roemmich said.
While the Fender grants got the Jefferson fifth-grade mandolin group going, Roemmich said ongoing support has been provided by grants from the Grand Island Education Foundation, as well as support from Ron’s Music in Grand Island.
She also used a “Donor’s Choose” grant program, which allows donors to scan a list of programs and then decide which one to financially support. An organization called “Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation” out of Deerfield, Fla., decided to donate $400 to help buy replacement percussion instruments for Jefferson Elementary.
Roemmich said those are primarily the same kinds of instruments used in all the other Grand Island elementary schools. However, like all instruments, Roemmich said, they eventually wear out and need to be replaced, so she decided to make a grant application to help that process along. She said the single donation from “Keeping the Blues Alive Foundation” was enough to meet all the needs at Jefferson.
Music and performing is something that continues to be a big part of Roemmich’s life, even beyond her job as a vocal music teacher. She has been in a number of Grand Island Little Theatre productions, including “Little Women,” “New Kids on the Block” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” with “Spamalot” her most recent appearance in a GILT production.
Roemmich directed last year’s Catherine Foskett Children’s Theater production of “That’s Princess ... With A Pea!” and she is scheduled to direct the next children’s theater production of “Hee Haw Hayride.”
She also is part of the music ministry at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, where she has performed with the guitar group during worship services. Roemmich said her primary role is to sing with the guitar group and sometimes play piano. She said she only very rarely tries to play guitar with the group. That is something she said she does only reluctantly.
When it comes to her guitar playing, Roemmich said, “I’m not very good.”
But perhaps that is another lesson for young students: Don’t be afraid to try something different, especially when there is a need.