A chorus of cheers for music education Academic performance hits higher note, too, instructor asserts

October 15, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Every week for the past 12 years, Worthington Elementary School music teacher Saundra Cunningham has moved cafeteria tables and rearranged chairs so that Howard County's best student singers could explore places such as South Africa, Israel, Ireland and the Deep South through music.

While the youths come away feeling they have a better understanding of music, Cunningham says the Howard County Children's Chorus -- one of only two advanced choruses in the state -- is as much about enhancing their academic performance as it is about singing.

"Our intent was to give the children an opportunity to sing music at a different level," she said. "But we have seen that children who have experience in music seem to test better."

This week, the 127 fourth- and fifth-graders are preparing for their five-song Saturday performance at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Musical Open House, a first for the chorus.

More than 220 students from around the county auditioned during the summer in a three-step tryout. By September, the pupils represented 34 of the county's 37 elementary schools.

Usually the children meet for 1 1/2 hours on Wednesdays through the school year, but this week they also met Monday. They arrive having memorized the songs' lyrics, rhythm and where they should pause and breathe during a song. The children walk in carrying a folder filled with music. Some are wearing soccer uniforms, karate belts or carrying an instrument. For many of them, the chorus is just a part of their busy schedule.

"I play soccer, tennis and do swimming," said Jennifer Bruns, 10, of Ellicott City. "It's not too hard."

Cunningham -- who depends on an accompanist and several volunteer parents -- kicks off the practice by having the children sit in their respective sections -- sopranos to the right, altos to the left -- and sing seemingly random phrases.

"Tica, tica, tica tock," the children sing.

Cunningham said the verse will help the children better pronounce "milk" and "silk" in "Velvet Shoes," one of their five songs.

The children then go through each of the songs. One minute they sing gospel: "Get on Board This Train," and the next a Hebrew children's song: "Banshana Shaba-A."

"We have a lot of different songs," said Sarah Hobbson, 10, of Manor Woods Elementary. "It kind of makes you want to express yourself."

The chorus' flourishing came at a time when schools nationwide are re-examining the role music should have in education, prompting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to invite the children to perform at the open house.

"In this day and age when music education is declining, it is great sign of commitment. We thought children would appreciate seeing their peers perform," said Margaret Walsh, the orchestra's spokeswoman.

"I worry about it nationwide," said Barbara King, the county's instructional facilitator for music. "When they are making cuts, music education is usually the first to go."

But King points to national statistics indicating the importance of music to education, some showing a 40 percent difference in standard test performance between pupils with music instruction and those without.

According to a 1993 College Board profile of the SAT, students with at least four years of arts experience have an average score of 454 on the verbal section, 53 points higher than their peers, and 35 points higher on the math section, or 501.

"Reading music is a special kind of reading," King said. "We know there is almost a correlation between reading music and reading."

But some students -- and parents -- already have noticed a change.

"I sing in the shower a lot," said Kate Sachs, 9, of Ellicott City.

Said Kellee Larkins, whose daughter, Krystle, is singing for the second year: "I have watched her mature. She has taken on more responsibility."

Cunningham decided to form the chorus 14 years ago after watching a similar group perform in Washington. At the time, only Montgomery County had a similar program in Maryland.

She says several of her students have gone on to pursue careers in music, studying in high school and college.

"I learned to understand the different terms and concepts of music," said Meghan Harrison, 14, of Elkridge. "I learned to love it even more than I did before."

After Monday's rehearsal, several of the children ran into the music room and banged on anything they could find -- cymbals, drumsticks and xylophones.

"We're professionals -- almost," said Rebecca Vorel, 10, of Columbia.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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