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If “The Mighty Ducks” was a movie about music instead of hockey, this is what it might look like — a class of 16 shy seventh- and eighth-graders, blowing with growing confidence into their faded flutes and chipped trombones, under the encouragement of a dedicated teacher.

The teacher is Mike Milbrath, who this year is reviving the long-defunct band program at Comstock Middle School in northwest Santa Rosa. Before school began in August, most of his students had never blown into an instrument or read sheet music. Despite that, Milbrath has set a lofty goal for them: march in the Rose Parade eight months from now. “Edgar, you’re always the slow boat to China. Let’s go,” Milbrath told one lagging student as he prepared to start class in early September. Trumpets oomphed and horns honked arrhythmically as students warmed up their instruments, which they had received only a couple of weeks before.

The 6-foot-plus teacher in a purple polo and suspenders had the band warm up by playing five notes in a scale, then spent a few minutes trouble-shooting with each section.

“Gentlemen, get those bells up,” he admonished the trumpet players. “The floor doesn’t care what you sound like.”

Then he had them do it again. “Good, that was a much better cutoff,” he said. “Bravo.”

The students listened quietly as Milbrath explained the difference between a quarter and a half note and tapped out the “ba ba bum da bumm bumm” rhythm to “Country Walk,” the song they were learning.

Aramis Romero, 13, joined the band because he wanted to learn the trumpet, an instrument his dad once played in the circus, he said. It was pretty hard at first, but with some tips from his teacher, as well as nightly practicing, it was getting easier.

“I’m hoping I can learn to play it well so I can play it in the Rose Parade,” he said. “I don’t want to mess up.”

Previous awards

Facing the class was a line of more than 20 trophies earned during past parades and musical competitions. One, from 2007, was a first place award for best middle school band in the Rose Parade. That was the last year the band existed.

“It’s going to mean a lot to the school to see them back out there,” Principal Laura Hendrickson said, looking at the trophy.

Comstock faced closure and lost its music program about seven years ago as the Santa Rosa City Schools district responded to a sharp decline in enrollment and, subsequently, funding, there and at other northwest Santa Rosa schools.

Ultimately, the school was spared. When Hendrickson, a former drama teacher, took the reins four years ago, she vowed to restore music and performing arts electives. Comstock’s enrollment is now rebounding, up to around 380 students this year versus 296 in 2011. And last year, Milbrath arrived at Comstock to teach one section of performing arts, on loan from nearby Piner High School.

Impact on Piner

Piner has also lost its band, in part because most of the middle schools that feed it no longer have music classes. Last year, the high school paid for Milbrath to teach at Comstock.

“We recognized that if we want performing arts to blossom at our school, we have to plant the seeds (in middle school),” said Piner Principal Sally Bimrose. “For some of our students, their families just don’t have the money to pay for special lessons, and they’re relying on schools to teach the musical basics.”

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This year, Hendrickson found the funds for Milbrath to continue teaching performing arts and also start a band class. He spent the summer whipping the old band room into shape, tracking down musical instruments that had been loaned out to other schools, dry cleaning the band’s purple and gold banner and having student shirts made with funds from Schools Plus, a local nonprofit organization that raises money for local school programs.

Recognizing the need for band programs at Comstock and Piner, Schools Plus has decided to hold a special drive at its annual October fundraising event with the goal of raising $100,000 for instruments, uniforms and other supplies at both schools.

Milbrath also restored an old chalkboard and wrote on it his mantra: “We’re here to get stuff done.”

That’s a change from his previous attitude, he says. Earlier in his career, he found himself pushing, working hard to get students on exciting trips to Hawaii and elite performances at Carnegie Hall.

Excellent musician

The 59-year-old teacher is described by his colleagues as an excellent musician, and his personal experience led him to expect a lot from his students as well.

After growing up in Minnesota and earning a degree in theater, he spent 14 years as a musician, dancer and actor in New York before getting married and turning to the more stable career of teaching. He has taught at Piner for 23 years, spending a few years as part-time night school principal and assistant principal before returning to full-time teaching.

But, he said, he has found over time that the lofty performance goals he held for his students aren’t always what’s most important to them. “The bottom line is, kids walk in the door with their stuff,” he said. “They didn’t have breakfast, they didn’t sleep enough the night before. Learning to focus on getting stuff done has become a much happier place to teach from.”

He still has high expectations for his students, he said, but has found that “kids on this side of town need to be famous at their school, in their community. That’s what matters.”

Milbrath ended class by urging his students to practice as much as they can. “Practicing makes you better, which makes it fun,” he said. “Your job is to drive your parents absolutely crazy.”

Catching a quick break before driving to Piner to teach another class, he said of the Rose Parade, “I want the kids to have a great time more than anything.” Then he added, “It’s all predicated on how they practice.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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