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East Lyme - The band began playing on stage in front of a backdrop depicting a starry night. The lead singer tapped on the keyboard and crooned the opening of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."
The band members then sounded drums and strummed on guitars, and the lyrics of "Knock, knock, knockin' on heaven's door..." echoed through the auditorium.
The young musicians on stage formed the Flanders Morning Rock Band. Connor Santa Maria, James O'Connor, Ajay Manohar, and Dylan and Patrick Conaway are on the drums. Annie O'Connor, Ajay Varma and Jessica Wood play the guitar. Ryan Whaley plays bass, and Spencer Stanley takes the piano and vocals.
The bright-eyed band members were practicing on an early morning in December at the Flanders Elementary School for a winter concert for the school community. Ten students, mostly in third and fourth grades, practice together several weekday mornings at school. The band, which performs songs from Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" to Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," formed in October when the students expressed an interest in playing musical instruments together.
They said in an interview that they have so much fun practicing with their friends in the mornings.
"I like coming in the morning and spending time with my friends," said Manohar.
The students, from those that have been playing music for years to those that picked up instruments this year, have learned music lessons as they practice with the band.
"I learned a lot of new chords," explained Wood.
The students have performed in front of crowds, including an opening performance at a televised Board of Education meeting and an act at the high school's Holiday Extravaganza Telethon. Performing in the shows may bring jitters, but also rewards.
"It's kind of nerve-racking, but it's kind of cool," said James O'Connor about performing.
Watching the students play in front of the school board was an affecting moment for the young musicians' two teachers.
"We got a little choked up," said music teacher Roy Schryver.
As the students spent time practicing music together, they have also grown closer as friends. For example, Stanley didn't know all the students when he began playing, but easily bonded with them.
"Once we kept playing together, I really felt like a family," he said.
For music teacher Nick Stellner, the band has helped teach the students the importance of joining together to create music.
"It's a great opportunity for the kids to play music with each other and learn more about the instruments," he said.
Stellner commended the town's and the school superintendent's support of the arts. East Lyme Public Schools, for example, offer two full periods of weekly music instruction in the third and fourth grades, he said.
"Playing music opens your mind to different realms of creativity," he added.