A silent hall erupts in a thunder of drums. Children’s voices sing “Jingle Bells.” A band room, used for storage for decades, once again rings with marching tunes.

Music is returning to rural Oregon thanks to a partnership between Ethos, a Portland-based music education nonprofit, and AmeriCorps, a federal community service program.

After years – sometime decades – of no music instruction, students in small towns scattered across the state are learning to play guitars, recorders, ukeleles, drums, flutes and their own voices.

The program began in 2001, when Ethos teachers drove a double-decker bus around the state, taking music to small towns. After the bus broke down, Ethos looked for a more sustainable program and since 2005, has placed AmeriCorps members in schools in towns with less than 6,000 residents.

“Some schools may have lost a music teacher 10 years ago and were never able to bring one back,” says Jedidiah Chavez, executive director of Ethos.

Think of it as Peace Corps for music.

The AmeriCorps teachers are all recent college graduates with music degrees who receive monthly stipends and free housing in their communities. The goal is to share the joy of music with students and ensure programs will continue for years, Chavez says.

This year, a $17,000 grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust is helping music teachers reach 1,350 students in grades K-12 in nine towns: Elkton (south of Eugene), Fossil (central Oregon), Condon (central), Monument (south of Pendleton), Madras (central), Metolius (near Madras), Warm Springs(central), Falls City and King’s Valley (both south of Monmouth).

Students take general music classes — what’s a quarter note? what’s an octave? — and join a choir, a band or a rock band, depending on their interest.

Hip hop is popular, as is jazz, bluegrass and country.

Classical music gets a spin, too. Each student receives three hours of music instruction a week.“I see that joy when a music teacher walks into the classroom,” says Nina Johnson, a Portland photographer who donates her services to Ethos.

And the music spills outside of school. Students play at baseball games, in parades, even at funerals. They perform the national anthem at pep rallies and the rodeo.

Parents help out, too. In Elkton, one teacher helped create an intergenerational pep band. In Condon, a teacher created an oral history project weaving together stories and music.

But for Chavez, one student stands out. He was troubled, in and out of juvenile detention in Fossil. When an Ethos teacher put a guitar in his hands, the young man took to it. For three years, he learned his way around the instrument and then he applied to one of the top music conservatories in the country: Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He got in.

We’re providing joy and happiness and music,” Chavez says. “We know music improves academics. These schools don’t have a lot of support services. No tutors. Music teaches discipline, focus. We’re providing a chance for success.”

Story by David Stabler

Photo by Nina Johnson