A sound approach to teaching children Instruction: Musicians take their instruments into area classrooms to help teach such "nonmusic" subjects as English, physics and history.

May 07, 1998|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

He calls himself "Mr. Violin." But Leonid Berkovich and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Arts Excel program give children more than an appreciation of classical music.

The notes of his violin help teach first-graders how to read -- and they're demonstrating how orchestras across the country can move beyond educational enrichment into the core curriculum of schools.

"The word 'tail.' Does that have a long or a short 'a' sound?" asks the 14-year veteran of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as he holds up a note card with the word. "Say it as I play a long note and a short note."

The quick pluck of a string doesn't sound quite right to the students at Tench Tilghman Elementary in East Baltimore. But when Berkovich stretches a long note across his violin, the first-graders quickly shout the correct answer: "Long 'a.' "

In 11 schools in Baltimore and Baltimore County, BSO and free-lance musicians are taking their instruments into classrooms to help teach such "nonmusic" subjects as English, physics and history.

The BSO's Arts Excel program -- in its second year -- aims to make the orchestra a vital part of instruction, rather than just a pleasant diversion unrelated to what children are learning.

"Traditionally, orchestras have been about enrichment for children, often a brief concert that's quickly forgotten," says Mitchell Korn, president of Artsvision, the Rhinebeck, N.Y., arts education company that is helping the BSO develop its program. "This is about working with teachers and making the lessons part of the curriculum."

About 60 musicians from the area have committed to teaching lessons, and the BSO expects to spend almost $4 million on a five-year pilot program.

A percussionist illustrates Latin American culture for Spanish classes. A banjo player demonstrates how vibrations make sound for middle school science students. Third-graders will learn about rhyming from a violinist.

"They're really working hard to tailor their lessons to what our students in Baltimore County need to learn," says Christopher Wilde, English department chairman at Lansdowne High School. They're working with us, getting the teachers to feel a part of the lessons."

The program is drawing national attention. The Center for Arts Education Research at Columbia University's Teachers College is evaluating the BSO's work, and other orchestras are watching to see how they might adapt the program for their local school systems.

"I think they are beginning to have kids who are learning and retaining things from the musicians' visits," says Harold Abeles, professor of music and education at Columbia and co-director of the center. "That's the first step. By the end of the five years, as children have been working with the musicians, I think there will be some real successes."

During a lesson at Lansdowne High, BSO percussionist Chris Williams plays the drums for ninth-grade English students. With a black drum set, Williams -- in his 20th year with the BSO -- demonstrates how different styles of music can be similar to the different styles of literature and poetry that the students have been learning.

"I like to get my feelings across in the music," Williams tells the students. "But to get out your personal feelings, it doesn't have to be music. It can be writing, speaking, clarinet or a lot of other things."

Nor does someone have to be an accomplished percussionist to show individuality with the drums, Williams says. With the entire class clapping along, student Chris Hartis jumps to the front of the room to show off his style, tapping out a rhythm with his drum sticks.

Williams is "showing us how to do things differently," says the 15-year-old freshman. "It fits in with what we've been learning about in poetry."

Ensuring that the BSO's lessons are part of what schools are teaching was a critical part of the orchestra's decision to begin the Arts Excel program, BSO educators say.

While the BSO has a long tradition in education -- particularly with its youth concerts -- "We felt there was a need to get more involved in education," says Linda Hambleton Panitz, chairwoman of the BSO's education committee and vice chairwoman of its board of directors.

"The BSO needed to be out there in classrooms helping teach children," she added.

For assistance, the BSO called Artsvision, considered by many to be the nation's leader in designing arts education programs.

Other cities where the company has worked include San Francisco, Chicago and New York.

Four dozen schools from throughout Baltimore and Baltimore County applied to join a five-year pilot program.

The BSO initially chose a dozen schools of all types -- elementary, middle and high, public, private and parochial, wealthy and poor. One school has withdrawn.

The program's early successes can be found in the classrooms -- and in developing future classical music audiences.

For example, at a recent BSO youth concert, children from Arts Excel schools excitedly waved to musicians who recently had taught them lessons.

And during the BSO's trip to Japan last fall, several musicians sent postcards to the Arts Excel schools.

"I have two kids, and I really love being able to come into classrooms and work with children," says Berkovich, a Russian immigrant whose accent and friendly "Mr. Violin" demeanor make him an instant hit with 6- and 7-year-olds.

During his afternoon at Tench Tilghman, Berkovich easily takes the first-graders through a half-hour lesson. He shows off a 5-inch-long violin -- which he calls "the world's smallest violin" -- and then moves into a review of vowel sounds using the different parts of the violin.

The children love every moment, and at the end they make Berkovich promise to bring a "child-size" violin the next time he visits so they can play. He reminds them to think about his violin when they get stuck on long and short vowels.

"I like the violin," says Jasmin Cook, 7. "I'm learning about the strings and the long and short vowels. It's fun."

Pub Date: 5/07/98

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