Miss Manners talks music

Culture: A volunteer effort works to stimulate an appreciation of the orchestra and its performances among children.

November 12, 1999|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

George Kelly has never been to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, but when he goes on Nov. 24, chances are his behavior will be as dignified as the concert.

At least that's what Barbara Bentley hopes.

Bentley, 68, teaches children the proper etiquette for attending concerts. She stopped by Pinderhughes Elementary School in West Baltimore yesterday to get dozens of third-graders ready for a performance.

When she asked them about the do's and don'ts of attending a concert, George eagerly raised his hand.

"You have to be quiet and use your manners," the soft-spoken boy said. Bentley couldn't have been happier with the answer.

For three years, she has gone to schools to teach children about classical music, show them instruments and give a lesson on acceptable behavior in symphony halls.

You could say she's the Miss Manners of concerts.

A retired deputy director of housing management for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Bentley is a member of a community outreach committee established by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 1989 to develop lasting ties in the African-American community. She and other volunteers implemented the program, "Adventures in Music."

That Bentley got involved with music is no accident. Her father moonlighted as a band player when she was a child growing up in Annapolis, her mother was an organist at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis and her paternal grandmother, Hattie Baden, taught her to play the piano.

Bentley said she played badly, but she never lost her love for music.

One day at the Meyerhoff she was impressed by how many children enjoyed the show.

"I saw these little children having such a ball listening to the concert," Bentley said. "They were waving their hands like they were the conductor. I didn't see many African-American faces that particular day, and I thought, `There are children in disadvantaged areas who might enjoy this also.' "

Bentley asked permission to solicit funds from the community to provide tickets for children whose parents couldn't afford to send them to the orchestra, and persuaded civic, community and black fraternities and sororities to contribute.

That was in 1997, when Pinderhughes was the only school in the program. Today, children at Ashburton, George Kelson, Fort Worthington and Samuel Coleridge Taylor elementary schools in Baltimore, and at Woodmoor Elementary in Baltimore County, also benefit. Bentley said it costs about $2,500 to send children from one school to a concert.

George isn't sure what to expect when he goes to the Meyerhoff, but he's excited about it. He was among about 30 children yesterday who sat in the Pinderhughes library, listening to Bentley and others talk about concerts and classical music.

When Bentley held up a picture of a violin and asked the children what it was, one pupil said a guitar. None of the children knew all four sections of an orchestra -- strings, brass, percussion and woodwind -- and fewer than 10 were sure what a conductor or a baton is.

Bentley made the session fun, incorporating a game of musical chairs as music by the BSO played in the background. Northwestern High School students Molly Poole and Jasmine Allen, and Dorothy George assisted.

Third-grade teacher Maxine Jones said the program is needed at Pinderhughes, where a music teacher spends a week every three weeks. "It gives the children a chance to learn about the different instruments that we don't normally get to do in music school," she said. Only four of Jones' 21 pupils have been to the Meyerhoff.

Bentley said nothing gives her more joy than seeing the children excited about classical music, like last year, when some of the children went to the Meyerhoff to see jazz vocalist and composer Bobby McFerrin.

"The little boy said, `Oh, boy, we're going to see Bobby McFerrin,' " Bentley said of one child's reaction. "It's like Puff Daddy was appearing," she said, referring to the African-American rapper.

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