Jennifer Brooks
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At Murray Middle School, 85 instruments had fallen silent.

Worn by years of band and orchestra practice, the brass was dented, the strings were frayed and the repair bill was longer than the repair budget from the St. Paul Public Schools could possibly stretch.

When the going gets tough, school bands sell chocolate. But refurbishing one flute would cost $168.25. It would take a lot of chocolate to fix this.

So Murray Middle School found a different fix.

Adopt an Instrument. The online fundraiser — the combined work of one devoted music teacher, many enthusiastic parents and the creative minds of middle schoolers — has been charming the spare change out of everyone who lays eyes on it for weeks.

All 85 instruments now have names and dramatic backstories, provided by young musicians who can't wait to play them. Flute repair takes on a new urgency when the flute has a name, and that name is Whappy Stick.

"One day, I was being played then suddenly my player dropped me." So begins the story of Whappy Stick the flute, just $168.25 away from adoption and redemption. " 'THE HORRORS!' Everyone screamed. As I fell onto the case breaking it. Please help fix me. I am sad."

Music teacher Denae Olsen leads the first period orchestra class at Murray Middle School.
Music teacher Denae Olsen leads the first period orchestra class at Murray Middle School.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Murray's Adopt an Instrument page is a grid of names, photos and tales of woe. Clicking each image links to a donation page at Cadenza Music, the storied St. Paul music store that is repairing instruments as quickly as donors can chip in a few dollars — or a few hundred. Already, half the instruments have been stamped with a triumphant "ADOPTED."

Donations poured in to repair Bluu, the string bass that needed a new bridge; Bonetrom, the trombone with the broken slide; and Lady Layla, the tenor sax in need of new neck cork.

"All these people are pitching in to help us," said seventh-grade band member Nijia Wheeler, 13. "It just makes my heart feel so happy."

More than half the students at Murray qualify for free or reduced lunches. Students watched in amazement as strangers donated as much as $400 at a time to make their instruments whole again.

"It feels pretty awesome that these people want to help our band program and our orchestra program," said Elise Helmer, 14, an eighth-grader who plays trumpet and baritone horn. "This music program means a lot to this school and a lot to these students."

Helmer created backstories for several instruments, including Bonnie, the bass clarinet — a loving single mother who was a bit "bent out of shape and disheveled" after 10 years of always being on the move. Charmed, donors chipped in $228 to get Bonnie the care she needs.

Music teacher Denae Olsen leads the first period orchestra class at Murray Middle School on Wednesday, April 26, 2023 in St. Paul.
Music teacher Denae Olsen leads the first period orchestra class at Murray Middle School on Wednesday, April 26, 2023 in St. Paul.

LEILA NAVIDI, Star Tribune

Music teacher Denae Olsen discovered the trove of damaged instruments when she started teaching at Murray this school year. The pandemic had been as hard on musical instruments as it was on music students. It was time to start making music again.

"The students are great," Olsen said. "They're very optimistic and they work hard."

The end-of-the-year school concert is coming up, and Olsen's students chose difficult pieces for the performance. It meant more work and practice for the band and orchestra, she said, but the students wanted a challenge.

"They all become a family," she said, as students filtered into the music room and began the joyful noise of band warmup. "They're all laughing and having a good time together … After the pandemic, it's fun to see it coming back."

Music tends to be the first thing cut when school budgets get tight. But music can help students learn. Music strengthens math and science skills and improves reading ability.

"Music is the reason kids come to school sometimes," said Robin Lorenzen, performing arts program coordinator for the school district. "I hope people can see the importance of music in our schools and in our society as a whole."

Best of all, music can make learning fun. In St. Paul, music class can mean everything from choir to lessons on composing soundtracks for video games.

"Band is my favorite one. It's not boring," said Wheeler, the seventh-grader. "Personally, I think Murray Middle School's beginning band is the best beginning band of all beginning bands."

And it goes without saying that her band teacher — the teacher who personally played every instrument in the storage room to find the ones that didn't make beautiful music — is the best beginning band teacher.

"Without her, I wouldn't have been able to go from alto saxophone to bassoon," Wheeler said. "Now I can play both. I feel like, yo, I'm multi-talented. It's so cool. I can play bassoon. I can play alto."

Wheeler is waiting to see who adopts Altasha, the alto sax with wonky keys and a dramatic backstory full of tropical beaches, sibling rivalry and a tumble into the ocean.

For more information about Altasha and her band mates, visit adoptaninstrument.com.