Composer James Swearingen started playing music when he was 8 years old.

He had wanted to play piano, but his family couldn't afford the instrument. So he settled on the accordion.

Not long after that, his father, Bruce, would take him all over Dayton to perform at hospitals, veterans associations and wherever else he could.

"I was 8 years old," the Grove City resident said. "I just wanted to play something."

Swearingen is a composer of band music, and he recently retired from his position as department chair of music education at Capital University in Bexley. He has served as a guest conductor in cities across the country and the world.

As part of a grant awarded to the New Albany-Plain Local School District by the Jeanne B. McCoy Community Center for the Arts board of directors, Swearingen recently worked with New Albany band students who are close to the age he was when he picked up the accordion.

On Dec. 2 and 3, he rehearsed with band students in grades 6 to 12 during the school day, and he participated in their concerts in the evenings at the McCoy Center, 100 W. Dublin-Granville Road in New Albany.

Because of the grant, the concerts featured several pieces written by Swearingen, and students began rehearsing them several months ago, said New Albany High School band director Darren Falk.

Working with Swearingen to play the music he composed gave students the opportunity to hear the music in the way he intended it to be heard, Falk said.

Quentin Shores, a 16-year-old junior who plays bass clarinet and contra alto clarinet, said working with a composer like Swearingen gives students insight into his process -- how he writes songs, why he writes songs and how he wants them to be played.

Brian Coon, instrumental-music and life-skills teacher at New Albany's intermediate school, middle school and high school, had the opportunity to work with Swearingen again after having the composer as an instructor at Capital University from 1987 to 1990.

"I was immediately impressed with Mr. Swearingen's knowledge about the nuts and bolts of teaching instrumental music to young people and his knowledge and experience related to running a successful band program," Coon said.

Although Swearingen is internationally known for his educational music compositions, Coon said, he always has been most inspired by the composer's mastery of teaching.

"He has an exceptional ability to connect with students and bring the best of any ensemble, and I think that is because he brings a unique combination of kindness, deep knowledge of music and high standards to every rehearsal," he said.

Learning from Swearingen also provides a glimpse of how a career as a composer and musician might proceed, Shores said.

"It allows you to think for the future," he said.

Falk said working with Swearingen has been a great experience for students.

District leaders chose Swearingen because he is both a good friend and a central Ohio resident, Falk said. His past experience in music education also was a boon for working with students, he said.

The district applied for the grant about a year ago, he said, adding that it covers all expenses of working with Swearingen.

Each year, staff members are invited to submit grant proposals to the McCoy Center board of directors for funding consideration to complement arts programming in the district and add additional experiences for students, said district spokesman Patrick Gallaway.

In addition to band students learning from Swearingen this school year, Gallaway said, students in grades pre-K through 12 will participate in the following programs funded by McCoy grants:

* BalletMet in residence (pre-K and kindergarten)

* "The Carnival of the Animals" (first grade)

* "Electrify Your Strings" with Mark Wood (orchestra students in grades 6 to 12)

* A districtwide Black History Month celebration

* African drummer Sogbety Diomande (grades K to 6)

* The "Why We Sing" community sing-along (grades 6 to 12)

* A jazz residency workshop (grades 9 to 12)