Maralee Barela sets up the chairs and music stands, anticipating the arrival of Northwood Academy’s fourth-graders.

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To watch a video of Moultrie Middle School’s seventh-grade band class and teacher Marie Evans, go to postand

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Barela, 29, is a clarinet specialist, but she knows a lot about all the instruments, and she assumes command easily once the kids are seated.

They begin by clapping and tapping their feet, counting out the measures and notation. Then they play some exercises, practice counting and rehearse sections of the music they’re working on.

Abilities vary. Most of these 9- and 10-year-old children are new to their instruments, learning proper embouchure — fitting their lips to the mouthpiece — and posture, finding the notes and experiencing the rigors of focused rehearsal for the first time.

But the tunes are clearly discernible, and the band even plays with some dynamic variation. Already, at this tender age, music is being made.

Melanie Van Deusen, principal of the Northwood Academy Lower School, said she is grateful for Barela’s help.

“It’s hard to find one person to teach all those instruments,” Van Deusen said.

Barela runs the Leonard School of Music, a nonprofit based in North Charleston that offers private lessons and extracurricular ensemble-playing opportunities, but also works closely with five private and three public schools.

The organization’s longtime champion is the 72-year-old Dan Leonard, who has devised a rhythm and sight-reading system for young players and published a book called “Building Confidence Through Sight-Reading.”

The method has been embraced strongly by some area music programs. Band teachers at Cario and Moultrie middle schools in Mount Pleasant swear by the Leonard rhythm system and now apply it daily in their classrooms.

The Leonard School, like Mount Pleasant-based Creative Spark, plays an important role in offering arts education to young students in the Charleston area.

In April last year, the Leonard School achieved its nonprofit status and then secured some grant funding so it could deploy a private band teacher to Morningside Middle School in North Charleston, which badly needed help with music education, Barela said.

Public schools increasingly benefit from the private sector, which furnishes extra teachers, after-school lessons and workshops, and other services. And some private schools depend entirely on organizations like the Leonard School to provide essential exposure to music activities.

“If it weren’t for what we do, these private schools wouldn’t have a band,” Barela said.

Counting beats

The Leonard School, which was started by Barela’s great-grandfather, Pat Leonard, in 1945, now employs four core band teachers, Barela, Leonard, David Gaven and Stephen Spaulding, who work with kids at four defined skill levels. One of its ensembles is the Lowcountry Homeschool Band, which gives homeschooling parents a chance to enroll their kids in a structured extracurricular activity.

Band is for anybody willing to join a group after school, but the biggest focus of the Leonard School is its jazz band, Barela said. About 150 students are enrolled at the school, and they meet twice a week for full rehearsals and twice a month for sectional practice sessions.

The school segregates its students according to ability, not age, she said. This way, it can avoid some of the pitfalls encountered in typical school band class, which might have advanced and beginner students in the same group.

Dan Leonard’s rhythm system is at the heart of everything, Barela said. Its focus is on note (and rest) duration, helping kids better understand note values in the context of actual elapsed time. They tap their foot as they play and sustain the pitch for the full count indicated. She doesn’t want anyone left behind.

The patriarch

Barela, a military brat, came to Charleston at 18 determined to become a music teacher. She shadowed Leonard and began to do some teaching in the schools, encouraged (and corrected) by her great-uncle. Today, she is executive director of the school.

Dan Leonard remains an active teacher and rhythm guru despite health challenges. He overcame an intense battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma that began in 1997 and ended three years later after chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, drug treatments and, finally, prayer.

In 2000, 10 months after he refused what his doctor said was his last hope, an allogeneic (stem cell) transplant, he rode a bike from Santa Monica, Calif., to Folly Beach, accompanied by Fox Music owner Charles Fox and Leonard’s nephew, Roman Hammes, to raise cancer awareness and encourage early screenings.

Ten years later, in 2010, he did it again, riding this time from San Diego to Folly Beach.

Leonard’s sight-reading book (which really emphasizes reading rhythms, not melodic lines) was produced in response to direct experience, he said. He noticed that a failure to grasp the nuances of rhythm was holding young players back, preventing them from understanding other aspects of music-making.

By focusing on rhythm, the kids gain confidence and a certain freedom to follow teachers’ musical direction.

“Students learn by depending on themselves instead of other people,” Leonard said.

The rhythm system has been embraced by band teachers Jeff Scott at Cario Middle School and Marie Evans at Moultrie Middle School.

Beat by beat

At a recent seventh-grade band rehearsal, Evans had her students warm up by playing intervals, first half-steps then widening incrementally to octaves, while the percussionists kept time by beating 16th notes on the xylophone.

“Don’t buzz, play,” she told the reed sections. “More air,” she told the brass players.

And then the ensemble spent about 15 minutes on exercises in Leonard’s book.

One and two-ee-and-a, three and four-ee-and-a ...

Up and down arrows above each line indicated the major beats and the relative position that each students’ foot should be in. The lines mixed quarter, eighth and 16th notes, but that didn’t faze the players who were counting meticulously and following Evans’ lead.

Asked whether the method was effective, and why, several students responded positively. Sax player Jacqueline Strauss said, “It’s teaching us how to use each kind of note.”

Trevor Kimbrell, who plays trombone, said it helps him understand different time signatures.

Trumpeter Sam King said he likes how the book lays out its lessons in step-by-step fashion.

Oboist Jack White said he appreciates the slow and methodical approach.

Evans said she hears far fewer students ask an irritating question: “Hey, Ms. Evans, how does this go?” Thanks to the lessons, young players are better able to figure things out themselves.

Evans called Leonard not long ago asking to purchase 180 books after her colleague at Cario raved about the methodology, she said.

“Then he said he wanted to be sure I knew how to use it, so he came into class,” Evans said of Leonard. “The kids took to him immediately.”

Spending 10 minutes or so on rhythm exercises at the beginning of each class reinforces basic lessons that can be applied to the musical numbers students are learning.

“It carries over,” Evans said.

All on board

For Van Deusen at Northwood Academy, the contributions of the Leonard School far exceed the benefits of teaching rhythm.

“What it does is fill a big void, not just in our private school, but in a lot of private schools,” she said. “It’s critical. We value music. We want our kids taught the instruments. It’s the perfect answer for private school.”

Most students are exposed to band class for the first time in middle school, but at Northwood Academy and other private schools that use Leonard teachers, the learning begins in fourth grade, Van Deusen said.

“And it doesn’t cost me anything. Parents pay directly.” The school merely provides the setting and encouragement.

A few times a year, the Leonard School brings all of its bands together for a concert. “It’s good for everybody,” Van Deusen said. Parents feel good about it. The kids mingle. And if they apply themselves, they can qualify for all-state band.

The value of the band experience multiplies exponentially when one takes into account the benefits of arts education, she added. The arts help students excel academically.

“It’s balancing both sides of the brain, making sure all things are addressed,” she said. “We’re very, very appreciative of it.”

So are the students if their response to Barela is any indication.

The 9- and 10-year-old kids, arranged in a semicircle at Northwood Academy, listened well to Barela and appeared to revel in the experience of playing instruments together. They are off to a good start.

Barela said it’s easy to teach to the top half of any given class, and in other subjects that might be appropriate. But band is a team effort, and all players, no matter their skill level, must abide by certain basic principles if the group is to sound any good. So she concentrates as much on the least experienced as on the most talented.

“It’s essential to get all on board,” she said.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at