Leah Fisher was ready for a challenge last summer when she took the job as orchestra director in Lyons Elementary School District 103. But when the school year began, she realized the task she faced was “a little scarier” than first expected.

An orchestra program that had numbered around 80 kids in 2002-03 had dwindled to just 15 last year after financial problems forced the district to pull funding from its music programs–orchestra, band and chorus. Only yeoman’s work by a parents’ fundraising group had been able to keep the programs from vanishing completely. But a significant rise in participation fees had forced many kids to drop out.

The passage of the referendum last spring led to the resurrection of music this year. Fisher and Tom Kanwischer were brought in to run orchestra and band respectively in the five elementary schools and George Washington Middle School. Their first task, getting kids to return to the program, seemed daunting.

But Fisher and Kanwischer put on a beginning-of-the-year recruiting push, which entailed speaking to every student in third through eighth grade. Children who had been in music before were encouraged to pick up their instruments again, while newcomers were welcomed with open arms.

Teachers urged their students to get involved. Growing the program actually proved easier than expected.

“I thought I would have to have a five-year plan,” said Fisher, a graduate of the Chicago Music Conservatory. “But the kids were kind of coming out of the woodwork.”

Today, there are 190 kids enrolled in instrumental music in the district, a 200-percent increase over last year.

General vocal music remained a part of the middle school curriculum last year but was cut at the elementary level. The hiring of three new music teachers has ensured that elementary kids are singing again. Middle school vocal music teacher Kate Strand is also leading a new show choir.

The music programs are not simply back, but are back and better than they’ve been in some time, according to Assistant Superintendent James Rick.

“I think right now, the team is the strongest we’ve had in many years,” he said. “I’ve been here 30 years and seen a lot of teachers come and go. I see the potential for our instrumental and vocal music programs to far exceed anything we’ve been able to do for a decade.”

Rick, himself a former music teacher, understands how children benefit from these programs, and knows the potential consequences of not having them available.

“Music serves as an incentive and a motivator and keeps kids interested in participating in something,” he said. “There is something about participating in a large ensemble that is unique. It’s a combination of cooperation with an element of competition. You have to be a participant to understand how that works. It’s very unique.

“I’m an advocate of everybody having a chance to try it. It would be a shame to have somebody who never had an opportunity to play a musical instrument and yet had a phenomenal ability. There could be another Wynton Marsalis, but [without a music program] we’d never know it.”

Superintendent Dr. Raymond Lauk spoke of research showing how participation in music can improve a student’s performance in mathematics and other disciplines. But, he said the students who play instruments are not the only ones whose lives are bettered by music programs.

“Those programs enrich the whole school culture,” he said. “I look back to our Veterans Day program and graduation and other programs where they perform. It adds so much to the school program.”

A group of parents and students had those benefits in mind when they formed S.O.S. (Save Our School) Music to keep the programs around during the 2003-04 school year. The group did everything from playing fundraising concerts to asking for donations outside of local grocery stores.

The money raised was passed on to the district for a scaled-down music program. Last year, District 103 employed just one band teacher, Jim Columbo, who was initially brought on as a part-time employee. He eventually became full-time but has since left the district to work on a master’s degree.

Student musicians were also on the hook for nearly $300 in participation fees last year, and many local families decided this was not in their budget.

But there was some music. Kanwischer, a University of Illinois graduate, said he hates to think what he would have encountered had S.O.S. not come to the program’s rescue.

“If music had disappeared last year, it would have been nearly impossible to bring back,” he said. “To lose a program and have to start it brand new … at least there was some consistency here.”

Kanwischer actually witnessed the demise of school music last year when the River Grove district that employed him lost its program after a failed referendum.

“I’m used to fighting for a program,” he said. “It’s great that it’s back here.”

These days, the middle school band and orchestra programs rehearse before school two or three times per week. Students are also pulled out of class once a week for sectional rehearsals.

The elementary school music students also have sectionals once a week and meet as a large group once a week after school. Beginning orchestra students, third and fourth graders, only meet in smaller groups.

The middle school vocal and instrumental music programs had three concerts scheduled this year, while the elementary students had two. In April, middle school music students will be participating at Band-O-Rama, a festival where local musicians are judged on ensemble and solo performances.

Other faculty members have commented to the orchestra teacher about the student’s change in personality. Fisher said that is just one of many success stories she has witnessed, thus far.

“We’re definitely picking it all back up,” she said. “Everyone is so excited about it.”