Monday | September 26, 2016
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Community band is music to residents’ ears

Playing the tuba for the Ka‘u Ohana Band gives Zachary DeBernardi an opportunity to continue a hobby he took up more than six decades ago.

“It’s just wonderful,” said the 82-year-old Ocean View resident who was delighted to have the perfect excuse to pull out his tuba again.

It’s the same one he played as a high school freshman in St. Louis, Mo.

DeBernardi began playing accordion when he was 9 years old.

Today, he plays numerous instruments, including fiddle, violin, recorder and banjo, and performs with several groups. But what DeBernardi enjoys most about the Ka‘u Ohana Band is the low-stress, high-reward communal experience.

“It’s been fun, and there’s a real sense of belonging,” he said.

DeBernardi has also found that brainpower, creativity and innovation don’t have an early expiration date.

Music exercises his brain, he said, and keeps him fit.

Cinnie Decker decided to strike up the community band in June 2009 because she was worried about the lack of music education at local public schools and felt generations of children were missing the chance to reap the myriad benefits of such creative experiences.

Decker knows the importance of the arts and how this discipline helps people blossom. She taught instrumental and vocal education for 43 years to students in kindergarten through 12th grade in New York, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico. She explained how researchers who have studied the benefits of music education for decades consistently find strong correlations between music and academic achievement. For example, music-making students and schools with music programs tend to perform better on standardized tests than those with no participation. She is concerned about how many of Hawaii’s schools are unable to meet the so-called Adequate Yearly Progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Decker, who voluntarily serves as its director, said the band fills a void in Ka‘u, a district with more than 5,000 people and “an outstanding pool of talented musicians.” Some of the Ka‘u Ohana Band members were professional performers, music educators or highly trained student musicians. There’s even a former Rockette.

“There was this big hole in the community,” she said. “There was no music or rather a place to play music. Our mission is simply to bring together people of all ages and walks of life throughout Ka‘u to make music in a fun and inclusive way.”

There are roughly 30 members; 20 are regulars. They range in age from 10 to 82. Hourlong practices are held Wednesdays and Thursdays at the Ocean View Community Center on Leilani Circle in Ocean View. Some members live minutes away, while others reside as far away as Wood Valley and Discovery Harbour.

People of all skill levels are accepted into the band, though beginners must first start with lessons at Decker’s home before coming to the community center. Instruments and lessons are provided at no cost. Decker helps beginners chose the instrument that is best for them — a decision that’s also based upon what’s needed and available in her shed. Many of the instruments are donated and have interesting stories behind them, including some found at the dump or in an overgrown yard.

A few members haven’t picked up an instrument in decades, but are ecstatic about renewing their love affair with music.

Some members are learning an instrument, while others are looking to improve, need a group to play with or want to make new connections.

Decker said the best part is watching the interactions between the young and old, seeing how they work, learn and blossom together. As for the youth, she has proudly watched them grow more confident, overcome anxiety and build valuable social skills.

Seventeen-year-old Ka‘u High School graduate Benjamin Houghton has found role models for life-long music engagement and is grateful for his mother “forcing” him to join the band. Through his participation, Houghton, a pianist since age 10, discovered passion for another instrument — the clarinet. “I was intrigued by it at first sound, which only took five tries to make,” he said.

Playing with the Ka‘u Ohana Band helped Houghton become a better student and even embrace the role of a teacher. Performances helped him conquer stage fright and “have a better grasp of reality.” Houghton said he’s inspired by Decker and hopes to emulate her “patience, talent, compassion and dedication to the art of music.” He is planning to major in music education at college.

The band is sponsored by the Ka‘u School of the Arts, a 501(c)3 organization that strives “to strengthen communities and empower individuals in a cultural diverse district of Ka‘u by fostering the understanding of culture, providing learning experiences, giving opportunities to share gifts and talents, and inspiring people to reach new heights in the arts.” It relies solely on donations to repair instruments, purchase music, as well as pay the $5 fee every time the group uses the center.

Members are encouraged to join the Ka‘u School of the Arts and Ocean View Community Association, but there’s no fee to participate in the band.

The band plays at community events, such as fall and spring flings at Punaluu Bake Shop gardens in Naalehu. It also participates in Christmas concerts in Ocean View and Discovery Harbour.

To donate, get involved or for more information, call Decker at 930-4697.