Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Twain Harte Middle School is alive with the sound of music once again, thanks to the dedication of a longtime music teacher who returned this fall.

Jim Wells, who taught at Twain Harte from 1970 to 1978 and later at Summerville High School, recently returned from Marin County and is now teaching Twain Harte Middle School's first band classes in several years.

Twain Harte students have responded with enthusiasm, and dozens are learning to play instruments that include drums, pianos, flutes and trumpets. They're using instruments left over from Wells' tenure in the 1970s.

So far, drums and guitar have proven the most popular instruments, according to Wells.

"They soon discover that (they're) harder than some other instruments," he said. "But that's OK, because you just take that enthusiasm and run with it."

Wells, 71, has 41 years of teaching experience. He started the Jazz @ 8 choir group at Summerville High School before teaching at Marin Catholic High School. Though he grew up in Oakdale, he raised his own children in Twain Harte and considers it home.

Shortly after returning this summer, Wells ran into an acquaintance who told him that the Twain Harte Middle School music program had been inactive for years.

Wells decided to do something about it and has been teaching there since October, with official classes starting about three weeks ago. He started with basic instruction for sixth-graders in music theory, teaching them how to read notes and count music.

Twain Harte Middle School Principal Dan Mayers said the students have jumped at the opportunity, with many spending their lunch period studying with Wells.

"It's just been great," Mayers said. "The kids are really excited about it."

The school obtained a grant from Sonora-based tech company Front Porch to pay Wells, though he doesn't earn anything near a full teacher's salary, according to Mayers. Half of the $9,800 grant will also help fund an art program at Twain Harte starting this winter.

Twain Harte Middle School once had flourishing drama and music programs, Mayers said.

However, they diminished due to the steep enrollment declines at Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District and the state funding shortfalls that have done away with music programs at other schools.

Today, most Mother Lode elementary-schoolers no longer have full-time music teachers.

Although part-time teachers keep music alive at many schools, Wells said local music education has suffered since the 1970s.

"When I was going strong here, every school had a music teacher," he said. "Some of them had two, like a part-time choral (teacher) … Some of them were even offering orchestra."

But music education hasn't diminished in importance, since it boosts academic achievement and helps engage students with school, according to Mayers.

Dedicated local musicians like Wells are trying to fill in the gaps. For example, longtime music teacher Mic Harper has helped lead a revival of the Curtis Creek Elementary School band program.

Mayers predicts that Wells' instruction at Twain Harte will liven up performance at the high school level, too, since band students will have learned the basics by the time they're in ninth grade.

Wells intends to stick around until California's budget for education improves enough to afford Twain Harte Middle School a full-time teacher, which may be awhile, he said.

"We human beings cannot live without music, whether we're good at playing it or good at listening to it," Wells said. "So every kid deserves a shot."