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With one voice, they sing for a cause

A cappella groups seek aid for school music programs

The musical groups performing at a benefit concert in Somerville's Davis Square next month won't require the screech of electric guitars, the pounding of drums, or the tickling of ivories.

As a cappella groups, they sing without accompaniment. But with their Sept. 18 performance, they plan to help Boston-area music programs that rely on pianos and other instruments to thrive.

The 20- and 30-something musicians sing an array of jazz, pop, and soul music in six up and coming groups, including Toxic Audio and Downtown Crossing. In their first joint benefit, they want to shed light on a nationwide problem: the lack of instruments, textbooks, and music classes in public schools.

"This is an issue that hits really close to home for all of us," said Carolyn Schneyer, spokeswoman for Vocal Band Aid, a nonprofit organization that organized the concert.

"Music programs have played an important role in our lives as performers," said Schneyer, a singer with Integration By Parts, a six-member Boston group that will perform. "It's pretty much common knowledge, at least among musicians, that music programs in most schools have been severely cut in recent years."

Long viewed as extras and luxuries, music and art classes have been reduced or dropped entirely to help school systems cope with dwindling budgets and preparations for high-stakes tests. School systems nationwide, working to prepare students to meet the standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have sacrificed chorus and instrument lessons to double up on math and English, say music education advocates.

As a cappella groups work to raise funds for schools at home, a federal official also expressed concern about cuts to the arts. On Tuesday, US Education Secretary Rod Paige wrote a letter to the country's superintendents telling them that the arts are as critical to student success as math and English.

"As I travel the country, I often hear that arts programs are endangered because of No Child Left Behind. This message . . . is not only disturbing, but just plain wrong," Paige wrote, pointing to research showing that students involved in music and arts perform better on tests.

Paige asked school leaders to use flexibility in their spending, but educators say that budgets are too tight.

"That's easy to say when you don't have enough money to support No Child Left Behind," said Catherine Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers' organization. "There are things that students and teachers have to focus on to get a diploma, but arts is not one of them. It's a shame."

To cope with budget cuts over the past three years, the union says, schools had to make tough choices: either increase class sizes or eliminate or scale back health, sports, music, and art programs.

In a February report, the teachers' association surveyed nearly 200 school officials about cuts made in the 2002-2003 school year. Music and arts were high on the list for many, with some school systems, like Barnstable, charging students hundreds of dollars in fees for music instruction. Fitchburg eliminated its high school chorus.

The a cappella community is trying to help three cash-strapped school systems that members learned about: Boston, Somerville, and Everett. The concert goal is to raise $5,000 for each school system.

While the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Boston has enough resources for some instrumental instruction, the school doesn't have enough for an electric piano to start a choral program, said concert organizers.

In Somerville, the budget for the system's music department was drastically reduced, leaving music programs at the 12 public schools underfunded and trying to raise money for new instruments, concert organizers said.

The Everett school system wants to expand its music program, but lacks money for manuals and textbooks.

"We're trying to build the best program we can," said Lori Shraut, a music teacher at Everett's Madeline English K-8 school. "Whatever help they are willing to offer, we'll take it."

The concert has been a year in the making, and the singers, who usually perform at coffeehouses and college campuses, come from all walks of life.

"In my group, we have someone who works at Harvard in financial aid, another person who does consulting, [and] we even have a chemist in our group," said Erika Tower, a singer with Downtown Crossing.

When she's not on stage singing pop and rock cover songs by artists such as Michelle Branch and The Gin Blossoms, Tower works with a nonprofit alcohol prevention group.

The concert is a grass-roots effort that started with phone calls to friends and teachers. Tower said the organizers hope that in future years the effort will grow.

"We need to give those kids an opportunity to express themselves," she said. "Not all kids become chemists or biologists."

Vocal Band Aid Concert

August 13, 2004

Featuring: Toxic Audio, Five O'Clock Shadow, All About Buford, Integration By Parts, Downtown Crossing, and East Side Story.

When: 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 18.

Where: Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square.

Ticket prices: $40, $30, or $20 for orchestra, mezzanine, or balcony seating.

Tickets are available at the theater box office, 617-625-4088, or at www.ticketmaster.com.

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