A world of possibilities awaits children who receive early exposure to the arts

March 24, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

THE APPRECIATION of great music ought to begin in earliest childhood. But at a time when public school art and music programs have been cut to the bone, large numbers of children find themselves with fewer opportunities than ever to become acquainted with the classics.

So it was encouraging to see a couple of hundred third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Cecil Elementary School in East Baltimore react so enthusiastically last week to a concert of classical chamber music performed by former Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Isidor Saslav and his wife, pianist Ann Heiligman Saslav. The 55-minute program in the school auditorium seemed to fly by on wings of song.

The Saslavs are veterans on this circuit. Each year they give 150 concerts around the country, mostly to young audiences. They were in town last week to finish up a series of 26 concerts in the schools that had been postponed due to snow earlier this year.

The series is jointly sponsored by the Peggy and Yale Gordon Trust foundation and the Baltimore City Schools Department of Compensatory Education and Funded Programs. Many of the city schools in the Saslavs' tour this year were eligible for federal Title I grants, an indication that a significant proportion of students come from families with incomes below the poverty line.

The sponsors' goal is to expose the children to a variety of arts and music experiences in their formative years, despite cuts in the education budget that have left many schools without full-time art and music teachers. Educators increasingly are aware that the arts and music encourage development of vital learning skillssuch as attentiveness, concentration and discipline, as well as nurture youngsters' ability to express themselves.

The Saslavs' program was divided into four parts. The first, which they called their "time machine," presented a thumbnail history of Western music from the baroque to modern times Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Joplin.

Next, Mr. Saslav demonstrated the difference in sound between his softer-voiced baroque violin and its modern counterpart. Then a student from the audience who had never played the violin before was invited onstage and given a quick violin lesson that allowed him to perform a short Hayden piece with the Saslavs.

Finally, groups of students were invited onstage to compose short musical themes by tacking magnetized notes onto a blackboard with staff lines drawn on it. Then the Saslavs improvised on the tunes they created.

There was a wonderful participatory quality to the concert. It wasn't quite hands-on instruction for the children (except for the lucky fellow who got the free violin lesson), but it was stimulating on so many levels aural, visual, mental and spiritual that it almost seemed so.

The Saslavs performed at a very high level of musicianship, yet the material was tailored to the needs and attention span of their audience. They played many short pieces, including excerpts of famous orchestral works transcribed for violin and piano.

Over the years they have honed their presentation to the point they can hold their tiny charges spellbound from first note to last. They never had to shout to make themselves heard; so total was their control over their audience that when they asked for silence you could hear a pin drop in the large auditorium.

I was particularly struck by the kids' response to the Beethoven. The Saslavs played the famous first four notes of his "Symphony No. 5" dum-dum-dum-DAH and asked who in the audience knew the name of the composer.

Virtually every hand went up: "Beethoven!" the children cried in unison. There was no sense that these youngsters felt intimidated by or excluded from the great tradition to which that masterpiece belongs. On the contrary, they embraced it delightedly.

The point is, these children already knew Beethoven and liked it. They were still innocent, still open to being influenced spiritually and intellectually by the master's music and the people who performed it. That is something so valuable that we as a society ought to be doing everything possible to nurture and preserve it.

No one is suggesting that programs like this one will somehow magically transform these youngsters into classical musicians or even into classical music fans, though that might be nice.

What's important is to keep alive their sense of possibility, of confidence in the future that allows every child to believe that he or she has a stake in the common human enterprise to which all great art refers, be it music, painting, theater or dance.

In later years, some of these children probably will turn away from what they heard last week unless we can find ways to reinforce the hopeful message artists like the Saslavs bring.

Then it will seem to them a symbol of a world they cannot enter and in which they are not welcome, the world that lies on the other side of America's fearsome racial and economic divide. They will not become subscribers to the symphony or the opera, won't visit the museums or repertory theaters, won't support the ballet.

And we shall all be the poorer for it.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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