The bands between bands: how the bell music is selected

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Upbeat, slow, and sometimes groovy songs blast through the overhead speakers at Townsend Harris High School as students rush to get to their classes on time.  It is a tradition at Townsend Harris to hear music instead of bells. It is also tradition for students and teachers to stare at each other on any given day and ask, “Who chose this?”

Perhaps it should come as no shock that Ms. Fee, Assistant Principal of Organization, is at the bottom of that question.  Although she is not necessarily the person who chooses the actual songs, the final responsibility falls to her office, where a nearby CD player provides the school’s signature sounds for passing.

Ms. Fee explained, “Sometimes staff members get ideas and bring cds, sometimes students get ideas and they request that it be for the occasion. Students have also requested music to be played that commemorates the death of a musician in the past. The request usually goes to the principal first, then to me.”

Traditionally, classical music plays to signal the change of bands, but jazz and instrumental versions of popular songs also appear.

The music has been a tradition since 1984.  Dr. Largmann, the founding principal, was instrumental in starting it.

“The warning bell gives the teacher a chance to give closure to a lesson, an important part of the learning process. The music allows for a seamless ending and beginning of periods, without the jolt of a bell,” says Ms.Fee.

Principal Barbetta believes the hallway music is innovative and works for Townsend Harris: “Not only does this policy work here, but it’s also a great way to expose students to classical music.”

Many Harrisites enjoy the music that plays on the speakers.

Sophomore Labiba Choudhury commented, “It’s interesting.  It makes the running from one class to another much easier.”

Sarah Manrakhan, senior, particularly enjoys the music used to commemorate the holidays and special events, such as the romantic songs played on Valentine’s Day.

“It made the students feel more involved in the holiday since there aren’t any special dances or events in our school revolving around some occasions.”

Some Harrisites questioned the final musical decisions.

Sophomore Lina Sultana said that in Freshman Gym, she was never able to hear the music clearly.

She emphasized: “I miss my bell.”

Harrisites offered their opinions on what types of music they would rather hear if given the option.  Many students requested more popular and upbeat songs.

Although Mr. Wood knows the music serves as a warning  for when students should be in class, he would prefer more jazz songs to be played:

“We need more Charlie Parker,” he said.

Junior Karun Bhardwaj enjoys the music played during the week of FON, which represents different cultures, “Townsend should be exposed to the rest of the student body, culturally. And I think playing songs from a different culture every other week would be a great idea to do so.”

In most high schools today, a standard bell rings in order to separate one period from the next.

Mr. Lobianco, the principal of Lehman High School in the Bronx, shared his thoughts on the bell system: “Personally, a simple bell is important.  It wakes the students up as soon as the class ends.  It’s a firm way of telling them, ‘Class is over.”

For students transitioning from schools with bells, the Townsend Harris method can be jarring at first.

Brianna Carreras, freshman, was stunned on her first day at Townsend, “I was confused” she said, “I didn’t know what it meant and what to do.  I just followed the others.”

Eriselda Cuni, another freshman, was also shocked,

“I didn’t understand this music. In my old school, we always used bells. I felt like I was in High School Musical.”

Beyond the academic reasons and the debates about bells versus music, Mr. Barbetta offered, perhaps, a simple explanation: “Students at Townsend Harris work hard all day, so they deserve a little music in between.”

Indeed, for many the musical tradition has become more than a simple fact of everyday life at THHS.

Senior Sheldon Isaac explained, “The music is what makes Townsend, Townsend. Without the music, we would be like any other school with bells. It lets us be different and lets others know that we go to Harris. The music represents us.”