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 Band Grandpa Helps Trumpeter at Alma Mater

2/5/2019 4:00 PM

​Christopher Belcastro says he still misses his mom, who died of lung cancer several years ago. He says that learning to play the trumpet helps him cope. Now he has a Band Grandpa, too — a relationship that might help him fill the spaces (and lines).

Jeff Layng graduated from Jefferson High School in 1973, so volunteering at the school as a Band Grandpa and helping students like Belcastro is a bit of a homecoming. Layng also plays trumpet in a local jazz band, the Grand Groove Hotel, with Belcastro's Concert Band teacher, Evon Sams. 

Layng, who is one of 13 Band Grandpas, was patient and encouraging with Belcastro on a recent Friday afternoon. While Belcastro says he wants to follow the lead of his grandfather, an accomplished trumpet player, first he needed a few of Layng's pointers about the function of lines and spaces in music. 

There is another consideration about trumpet playing: Breath — a lot of it. "You generate a ton of air," Layng tells Belcastro. 

It is the second year of the Band Grandpas program in the Rockford Public Schools, and it's capturing national attention. NBC Nightly News heard about the program through an "Our City, O​ur Story" video shot by Pablo Korona of Rockford. An NBC crew is at three district schools this week to film the segment, which hasn't been scheduled for airing yet.

The Band Grandpas were the brainchild of retired Rockford gastroenterologist Dr. Arnie Rosen. Three years ago, he was looking for a steady volunteering gig as retirement neared. He, Fine Arts Director Bonnie Spurling and Margo Stedman of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra put their heads together about a program that would help kids, whether they ended up as professional musicians or not. "Football is not going to last a lifetime, but music does," Rosen said in 2017.

The benefit for students in having a Band Grandpa — or ​Grandma — may be as much emotional as musical. "It's a unique relationship and really important," Spurling said. "When they tell stories, kids listen."

Students need the routine as well, according to Spurling. "It's that consistency of knowing that someone will be there every Tuesday."

Friday is Layng's day at Jefferson. The biggest success working individually with Belcastro was something that sounds counterintuitive for a big wind instrument: If you relax, you'll create more air and a better sound. "The biggest thing is, let your air do the work," Layng told him. 

Just a few minutes before that, Belcastro smiled widely as Layng praised him for doing the C scale. "You got it, man! We're going to get you there."

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