Each AISD elementary school will receive an acoustically appropriate strings room, funded by the 2014 Bond package. The bond is also enabling other life cycle and deficiency upgrades at each elementary, along with the addition of two STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – labs. (Read more about the STEM labs.)
While construction of the strings rooms will not begin until late this spring, careful thought and consideration have already gone into planning them. Fine arts are a major priority in the AISD and the district is committed to giving all of its students the opportunity to receive an outstanding music education – beginning at the elementary level.
William Reed, the orchestra director/teacher at Anderson, Crouch and Crow Elementaries, said, “It is desperately needed … for the kids’ sake.” He explained that a dedicated strings room that is big enough to accommodate his classes (students using bows to play instruments need plenty of space) is critical. The students would have their own space – space that is acoustically optimal for learning – and the instruments, which are expensive, would have a safe place to be stored. And with more space, Reed said, more students could participate.
The AISD fine arts department took those needs into account and developed ideal specifications for the elementary strings rooms. Craig Wills, of the AISD facility planning and construction department, then compiled the essentials for the architects, who are now in the process of developing the actual plans. Plans will vary from school to school, as “every school is a little different as far as what space is available,” Wills explained. So the AISD facility planning staff and architects are adapting the ideal specifications to each elementary’s existing footprint.
“A smart design is the first, and one of the most important steps toward creating an effective elementary strings room,” Wills wrote in the strings room requirements for the architect. In the design, flexibility is imperative. Each class period can look different. Some activities might include the entire class in one big circle, while others might require small groups spread out in different areas. Developing a room that will cater to a wide variety of activities, while also providing optimal acoustics and instrument storage is the goal.
The strings room requirements developed by the AISD fine arts department and given to the architects include the following:
Main activity area – The heart of the room is a large, open, square area. This is where most of the action is. Although the room itself does not need to be square, an area that can quickly be cleared is best so that a class can be effectively organized in a big circle. All the movement in this area makes a flat, open floor a necessity.
Instrument usage area – A designated area for instrument use is a great time saver and convenience. When a dedicated instrument area is provided, it allows a teacher to have the larger instruments out and ready to play before class begins, which allows for a fast, effective transition between lesson activities.
Teacher area – Along the walls of the teacher area there should be whiteboards and bulletin boards. Enough clear floor space must be available for children to comfortably sit and participate in the lesson. It is also the obvious place for the teacher’s desk.
Music technology work area – Computers and other multimedia equipment allow children to enhance their music education as a class or independently. A technology station, along with interactive whiteboards, will enrich the music experience. For all the technology to work, there are connectivity requirements like wiring and cabling and Internet access. Adequate voltage and electrical outlets to the room will be required, and the room should be well-ventilated and well-lit.
Instrument and general storage area – Storage is extremely important. Ideally the strings room will be located next to the music room. The two rooms can then share a common storage space between them, with teacher access from both sides. Adequate instrument storage will ensure a safe place for all the students’ instruments. Far too often now, instruments are just stored in the halls.
Square footage and cubic footage – The strings room should be larger than a normal classroom. But it’s not just square feet that matter. Cubic volume is a critical measurement for acoustics as well (addressed further under acoustics).
Traffic flow – More than one entrance/exit into the room can make it easier for students entering or exiting with instruments. Locating the storage area near the instrument playing area will also promote smooth traffic flow.
Acoustics – The acoustics in the room are critical. Students must learn to hear and understand differences in tone, tempo, pitch and articulation and be able to identify sounds that are in-tune or out-of-tune (intonation). This skill is called critical listening and is fundamental in the development of strong musicianship.
Adequate cubic volume is the most basic acoustical requirement in a music area, but it is also the most difficult to achieve in this case. “We will make the acoustics as good as we can based on what we have to work with,” Wills said, explaining the challenge of repurposing rooms in existing elementary buildings. A lot of sound will be produced in these rooms, so they must be designed to the greatest degree possible to maximize cubic volume. While low ceilings will be unavoidable when reclaiming existing rooms, as much as possible, and when constructing new rooms, higher ceilings should be incorporated for better acoustical performance.
The angles of the walls are also important acoustical factors. Untreated parallel walls will cause an undesirable ringing or buzzing. This can be acoustically treated with sound diffusing and absorbing panels. Diffuser panels scatter and blend sound with reflective, irregular surfaces. Absorber panels reduce sound levels with soft, porous surfaces.
Another key factor in acoustics is sound isolation – keeping the sound in the room and keeping out sound from outside the room. Sounds from other areas can confuse students and impair the teacher’s ability to teach. And sound generated within the room can distract other classrooms or offices. For good sound isolation, locate the strings room away from other rooms as much as possible. Also, protect the room from adjacent noise-generating areas such as cafeterias, gyms or noisy mechanical system rooms. Good sound isolation can be achieved by building full-height, sound-isolating walls sealed to the building structure at the floor and ceiling. Corridors, offices and storage rooms can be used as buffer zones. This isolates the sound between adjoining areas.
Wall seams, electrical outlets and ventilation ducts are common sources of sound leakage. Staggered wall seams and outlets, as well as baffled, filtered ventilation ducts will help to remedy sound leaks and HVAC interference. Doors and windows are another source where sound can escape. Be careful to provide doors and windows that have adequate acoustical ratings.
Construction of the new strings rooms is scheduled to begin at 31 of the AISD’s elementary schools in the spring of 2016. Then construction will follow at 17 more schools in 2017.