Sacred Heart makes band mandatory for all students

Star Staff Writer

“Variety is the spice of life,” goes an old saying. Adding music to the variety can really spice up life, according to a website called The site goes on to explain that when children are exposed to music, they also are exposed to numerous experiences, cultures, countries and ideas.

One Miles City principal has decided to give a musical background in band to the children in the school where he is employed. According to Bart Freese, Sacred Heart Parish School (SHPS) principal, playing in the band is mandatory for students in the fifth through eighth grades. School students in the third and fourth grades at SHPS also are getting instruction on recorder music by Marie Layton.

“That’s a huge help. We didn’t have that until the last few years,” said Freese, who in addition to his duties as principal, teaches the 7th and 8th grades at SHPS, directs the band and helps the young musicians with their musical instruments.

“We haven’t put all the kids together to play yet,” said Freese. “We don’t put the 5th graders in with the main band of 6th through 8th graders until after Christmas.”

Babs Pius helps direct the band four days a week, according to Freese. Advanced band rehearses two days a week and beginning band plays two days a week before Christmas. After the holidays, the combined bands rehearse two days a week.

“It’s really important to have Babs direct,” said Freese, who helps students in different sections of the band, especially the trombones and trumpets. “I can’t direct when I’m helping the kids.” 

Freese said he started playing in band as a drummer at Washington Middle School in Miles City because his friends took band under Hale Swanson, who was the WMS band and choral director at that time. Swanson moved to Miles City with his wife and two sons in 1964 and taught at WMS for 34 years

Freese moved on to playing the tuba at Custer County District High School under the direction of band director Ralph Hartse and stayed with the instrument through college. He was a member of the Grizzly Marching Band at the University of Montana in Missoula for four years and played in the UM Symphonic Band for two years.

“Marching band was great,” said Freese. “I was in it for four years and I never played the UM fight song twice the same way. That’s because we had to memorize the music.”

He graduated from UM with a degree in broadcast journalism and returned to Miles City. He and his wife, Shelley, were married a year later and he was hired as principal of Sacred Heart Parish School in 1997. The couple have two daughters, Cecelia, also a student at UM, and Lila, a sophomore at CCDHS. Both girls attended SHPS and played in the mandatory band.

“For years we had a band at Sacred Heart and it wasn’t mandatory,” said Freese. “Then there was a period where we didn’t have a band instructor. For a number of years, we didn’t have a band. We couldn’t find anyone to teach it.”

Freese explained that David Florian, Babs Pius and Dr. Stephen Nalawaja approached him and thought SHPS should have a band again, at least for the 5th through 8th graders. 

“The one thing that was going to have to happen was that everybody played, because [the school] is too small to run the program any other way,” said Freese. “To me it was ‘if we’re going to have band, everybody’s going to do it’ — and the fact is, it’s good for you. Even if you’re not going to go on in music — even a little exposure playing in a group is good for you. And you really do develop (if you realize it or not) a greater appreciation of music.”

He added that not all of the students like band and to him that’s a big challenge.

“Getting everyone to play — and to play well — it’s tough trying to get kids interested,” he said. “If you can play, band is a lot more fun. As long as you have a couple of strong players in each section of the band, they’ll lead the others on.”

He said that now he has three alto saxophone players who are really strong. He added that Sam Layton, an eighth grader, is the band’s main drummer.

“One of the main reasons we’re successful is because of Sam, who has been our main drummer since the 5th grade,” said Freese. “If your drummer is off, the band is off, especially in a marching band. Sam’s in the 8th grade now and I hope he goes on in band in high school.”

Freese explained, “One of my focuses now, even though we aren’t in a public system, is to get a few students each year to go into the high school band. I think they’ve got a good program at CCDHS and we can help support it. Every year we have a couple of students go into the CCDHS Band program. I want to send [Mike Gillan, the CCDHS Band director] some solid players.”

“The students we get from Sacred Heart are good students,” said Gillan. “I’d like to see us get more of them.”

Freese said that the band students play a lot of pep band music. He added that he has a music program on his computer and he writes the selections out for the students.

“As we get bigger classes at Sacred Heart, it gets harder to find instruments for people to play,” said Freese, “We’ve grown so much we ran out of instruments. We put out a call and got in a lot of donations. St. Labre School in Ashland got some new instruments and they sent us a lot of their used ones. They were all in good, functioning shape.”

Right now the band is made up of clarinet, bass clarinet, alto and baritone saxophone, trombone, flute, trumpet, tuba and percussion players.

“We get a lot of people telling us they’re impressed at how good the music sounds,” said Freese.

SHPS secretary Sandi Toennis added, “At the school’s basketball games, the band brings energy to the players and crowd. Those musicians are great representatives of what a good program we have. The band would not be what it is today without Bart. He works hard with those kids.”

“It’s tough for the pep band to play at games, it’s so small. Half the kids are on the floor, playing in the game,” said Freese.

“Working with the band has been a lot of extra effort,  but it’s worth it in the long run,” Freese added. “Some of the kids just put up with it, but a lot of them love it and if it wasn’t mandatory, a lot of kids wouldn’t have played at all.”

(Contact Denise Hartse at or 406-234-0450.)