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MPS high school music program takes learning and creativity to a new level

Anthony Hughes

This week marks the beginning of a new year for Milwaukee Public Schools.

All over the city bells are ringing, lockers are slamming, feet are shuffling, pencils are sharpening, voices are singing, and instruments are playing once again.

But those are not all the sounds you’ll hear inside one southside high school.

At Ronald Reagan, music education expands beyond the traditional performance tracks.

Reagan has a student-run radio station, a DJ club, three full-time music teachers, five regular guest artists, community partnerships, and a culture of composition.

Continue reading below.

The music program at Reagan began with less than 50 students. In just over a decade it has grown to include over 400 students who make music every day.

In the past few years, Reagan students applying to conservatories and schools of music have had a 100% acceptance rate. About half of those students entered Reagan with zero formal music training.

Erica Breitbarth, Reagan’s choir director and music department chairperson, was among 10 finalists for the latest Grammy Music Educator Award.

Reagan was founded in 2003. It has since established an excellent reputation by virtue of a creative and forward-thinking administration and staff.

A major part of Reagan’s identity is being an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School, which includes a comprehensive and challenging college preparatory program. The arts are at the core of the IB curriculum.

What makes Reagan’s music program truly unique is that it is representative of the student body. Teachers believe that students deserve the opportunity to explore whatever aspect of music interests them.

When I spoke with Adam Carr, former 88Nine Community Stories producer and current Radio Reagan advisor, he told me that during an early visit to Reagan he found students beating on buckets asking if they could start a drumline. In stepped Adam Murphy, Reagan’s orchestra and band director, with the help of Nicholas Johnson, who acquired the necessary equipment.

Alumni of the Reagan music program have had a busy summer.

DJ Whyte Nite (Juan Guzman) opened for Future, Big Sean, and Migos — alongside DJ Nu Stylez and Reagan DJ club advisor Tyrone “DJ Bizzon” Miller — at Summerfest, while Genesis Renji (Elijah Furquan) won $20,000 from the US Bank #TourPossible competition.

Current Reagan students could be seen twice at Bay View’s Chill on the Hill, as the school’s jazz band and Colors of the Alphabet each performed.

When I asked Tyrone Miller about Breitbarth and Murphy he said, “You can tell it’s more than a job for them.”

Breitbarth and Murphy, along with choral/general music teacher Heidi Wylie, are tireless advocates for their students, their program, and the value of arts education.

The Reagan music program is so beloved that alumni and current students took time out of their summer vacation to help set up the music rooms for the new year.

I recently sat down with Breitbarth and Murphy. We spoke about starting a music program from the ground up, expanding music education, facing challenges, building community, dedication, and the Grammy Awards process.

Below you will find audio of our conversation with certain sections transcribed, photos, videos, plus clips from Adam Carr’s 2011 stories for 88Nine’s “Make Milwaukee” series.


We walked into a really good situation where there were fantastic students and a really supportive administration that had acquired some funding. We are the Vera J. Zilber Music Department at Reagan High School because the Zilber family foundation has consistently given a donation to our program, which we use for supplies, music, instruments, travel, and community partnerships. Knowing that you have that funding on the first day of your job at a program that's not established was a gift. That was a luxury that we’re very thankful for.

Being in a program that wasn't established means that we got to build it from the ground up philosophically as well. We got to build a program that we thought was representative of the students that we were serving. Our goal was that every student that wanted to make music should have an outlet. Whether it's band, orchestra, choir, being a DJ or doing radio. So we have a student-run radio station, DJ club and musical theater. We wanted to have places for students to plug in who might fit some of those non-traditional molds of music. That meant expanding what we thought a music department should look like.

The first five years were the hardest I think. To establish a culture for learning that looked like what we wanted it to and to get kids to buy into that. Building student leadership took time. But there were definitely a lot of conversations around what we wanted it to look like. And a lot of reflection year after year.

Every year it's gotten more refined. More artists are on board, we have five guest artists that work with our students and three full-time music teachers, which is pretty unheard of. It's snowballed from the beginning idea, student excitement and enthusiasm, and has built itself into something bigger. It was definitely a lot of work on the front end.


I think one of the biggest differences with our specific music program is that we’re teaching composition. That experience of writing a piece and then seeing it performed for the first time, especially when you have a collaborative partnership with Present Music where they bring in a string quartet of Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra players. The students hear their pieces played by real living musicians.

Their eyes get wide and they get so excited because the music comes to life for the first time. The computer, which has no emotions, can play every note perfectly but it can't make it beautiful. So we really try to foster this kind of composers forum collective where they're sharing what they create with each other, giving each other feedback, and the best part is the presentation of their music.

Because music is not just an elective, we see our students more and they are exposed to more opportunities in the arts. We look at what it's like to be a composer, an ethnomusicologist, a theorist of music. It's really important that we are not the only musicians that they interact with. We want to get as many musicians in to have those conversations with them, not only to inspire them, but also to present them with some social capital.

High schools and music schools in general in the United States are so performance-centric. They don't necessarily nurture those other aspects of musicianship. When we look at what the music industry looks like now and what jobs are like in music, they are far more dynamic than just being a performer.

Even if you're a great performer, you've got to know how to promote yourself, how to arrange, how to put a band together, how to talk to instrumentalists that play instruments you don't play. And those are skills that are learned. So with the IB curriculum we get an opportunity to teach students some of those skills before they leave high school.

When they go away to college we hope they'll come back and have those connections already made. I think that's also what Grace Weber would like to see happen with TheMusic Lab — to create an incubator for the artistic community of young people so that they know there are a lot of different options out there and can think about those options.

It's also great to see some of the students like Juan (DJ Whyte Nite), who started or got involved in the music program via music technology, realize "I need some musical chops. I can only get so far." Then they take choir or band or orchestra along with DJing, so they have another skill on the table. It's fun to see students not see such clean lines between all different kinds of music.


Originally our students who came to school late were put in a detention room and had to listen to music before they could go to class...

As their punishment!

...and I thought that wasn't fair as the music teacher. I thought everyone should get to hear music in the morning. But this was tricky. So we collected records, we’re an all vinyl radio station. It helps to make sure we have the copyright for everything that we play. And then the students get that tactile experience of putting a record on. Just using the record is a foreign experience with MP3s nowadays, to have a physical connection to the medium is exciting.

The students come in in the morning, they do all the morning announcements, they tell what's on the cafeteria lunch menu and then kind of delve into some personal topics. After school they'll come up with a guiding question, they'll all get a chance to use their voice. Some of the quietest students have really strong powerful voices once they are given that microphone and given that opportunity to be heard. It's been really healthy, it sets a great tone for the school day, and it gives kids control to kind of create their own culture and atmosphere in the building. It's a really positive experience.


IB is oftentimes implemented at international schools and private schools on the East Coast with students who are assumed to have had eight years of musical training before they get there. But we're looking at kids who don't know what a quarter note is when they are freshmen. So how do we get them to the same outcomes by the time they're seniors?

The creative implementation of the IB curriculum has been a big challenge, but has been incredibly rewarding because we have a lot of students who are now heading off to conservatories and schools of music even though they didn't know how to read music when they were freshmen.


It's hard to describe the growth we've seen in our students from the time they’re freshmen to the time they're seniors. Not just how the making of music has impacted them, but the social community and cohesion of the students coming together around something.

I tell my students every year at our final concert with 200 choir students and 50 orchestra kids, “There are very few things that 250 high school students do together. And we're going to sing and perform the Mozart Requiem and it’s been performed by choirs throughout generations.”

They're excited to do that. It creates this kind of social cohesion that is not matched in a math class or an English class. You are stronger together. You actually can't create that kind of music by yourself.

Also, there is the relationships that we have been able to have with them, because we see the same students for all four years. We get to see them all the way through and encourage them and figure out what they're passionate about and help encourage those things.

We kind of have a reputation around the building as being a family. The music department is a family, so people want to be a part of that, it's magnetic. Students will come be a part of the ensemble so that they can be a part of that family, which is not only about good music making but is about community building.

There are so many students, especially some of our special education students, who maybe aren't as academically successful or feel a lot of pressure in a lot of their academic subjects and they are some of our best musicians. They're the kids who really feel like they have a home.

And there’s the diversity of students — having that opportunity to work with people that might not look like you or be from the same country.

The opportunity to get together and work with people who are different from you is how we create understanding. It's great in a city like Milwaukee that has a history of segregation to bring those students together around something positive. That's the way we're going to change the future, by creating opportunities for them.

Music creates a way that we can engage with the culture of others. This past year we did a number of pieces with the choirs that were not in English. Almost in every class there was a student who spoke fluently the language we were singing. Some students brought music from their own cultural backgrounds.

We did an Albanian piece with an Albanian foreign exchange student that had never been performed in the United States. He coached us on how to pronounce all the words and we performed this piece. It's an opportunity to share the cultures that they know and love with others through the medium of music.


I always say that teaching is a “lifestyle job.” You never turn your brain off. For the first 5 years I think we were there 60 to 70 hours a week, because we knew that was what we needed to do to get the thing running.

It's exhausting, but I've never had a day where I went into work and I wasn't excited. It's nice to have the summer to sleep, but it's incredibly rewarding work. I say it's the best job in the world.

We're coming up on the ultimate fulfillment, which is to see our alumni graduate from college and then hopefully come back into the City of Milwaukee and become music educators alongside us. That's when you feel like you've really made it.

We've got about six in the pipeline who are studying music education who want to be music teachers. I told them that my next achievement will be when I am sitting in the back of their elementary music concert and their kids are all singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and I'm like sobbing in the background.

I'd love to see students who've experienced strong music education come back and teach in MPS and spread that type of community music-making culture to other schools. Because we seem to be a bit of a rarity in the city.


Through the Grammy process the most exciting thing has been that it's shed light on things that we already know to be true about these students and that a lot of people don't see, especially coming from urban programs. When you think about good music education you think about the suburban schools that have the funding to do it.

You don't always get to see those voices and get to hear those stories from these students. And so those student stories were at the forefront of a lot of the media attention around the program and that was really exciting. The students were really excited because they know they're making good music, but to get recognized for the work that they're doing was really awesome.