Getting young ears in tune

Music: A Juilliard graduate student brings her knowledge of sound and rhythm to a Baltimore elementary school.

May 01, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

If you're 8 years old, music can be a Raffi song, a Pepsi commercial or maybe the latest hit by 'N Sync. But a Mozart sonata? That's for grown-ups.

Unless you happen to be in Miss Rachel's music class.

It's just past lunchtime at an inner-city school in Baltimore, and 17 second-graders are sitting in a semicircle, listening to the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the "Fantasia 2000" soundtrack. Their teacher, Rachel Shapiro, a 22-year-old classically trained viola player, asks them to identify a few of the instruments.

Hands shoot up. "I know, I know," says Aduke Kokayi, 8. "The flute and cello."

"Violins," adds classmate Jodeci Wheaden. "The oboe."

"That's right." Shapiro nods and fast-forwards to a solo. "What do you hear now?"

"The horn?" asks 8-year-old Louis Arroyo.

"Right family, wrong instrument," Shapiro says, and holds up a picture of a trumpet. "What's this family?"

"Brass," the children call out.

Over the past school year, the second-graders at George G. Kelson Elementary have learned to distinguish an oboe from a clarinet. They have talked about high and low notes, played rhythm instruments together and listened to performances by a chamber music ensemble. Along the way, they have discovered how sound and rhythm are as fundamental to today's pop and hip-hop as to centuries-old symphonies. It's a rare opportunity -- made possible by the dedication of a young graduate student from New York City -- at a time when few Baltimore elementary schools provide any kind of music lessons.

Only 46 music teachers are left to keep classes going at 70 of the city's 123 elementaries. As in many school districts nationwide, music and art have faded from the curriculum over the past two decades, victims of budget cuts and back-to-basic academics.

Kelson Elementary seems hardly better positioned to make music a priority. The school, in the economically depressed Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, has far more poor pupils than wealthy alumni. But Kelson Elementary has the help of a foundation, a principal with high standards and two performers who want to give the children a chance to share their love of music.

One is Robert Novak, a percussionist with the Baltimore Opera, who gives free after-school instrument lessons to a dozen pupils. The other is Shapiro, a viola player with the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Concertante ensemble, who teaches second grade.

Shapiro has plenty of obligations. She is finishing her master's degree at New York's prestigious Juilliard School and has a busy schedule of classes, exams, rehearsals and performances.

Still, every Wednesday morning, she gets up at 6: 30 to take the train from New York to Baltimore, then catches a cab to Kelson Elementary. The Enterprise Foundation, which is working to rebuild Sandtown-Winchester, pays her a small stipend. Her commitment goes beyond time and money. Teaching can be tough even when the pupils are enthusiastic. One class is made up of special education pupils who can have a hard time concentrating and sitting still. Some pupils in her other three classes listen closely; others are disruptive and try to test the patience of a teacher they don't see every day.

Yet Shapiro has found the experience more rewarding than she had expected.

"I get a lot of joy out of seeing them get better at something, their ability to hear and appreciate, their growing confidence," she says. "If one of them gets into music on their own and wants to go hear `Peter and the Wolf,' that's a big deal.

"I just feel classical music is important. I feel the more people who hear it, their lives would be better," she adds. "The students are starting to make connections, and when you understand it, then classical music isn't so scary, it isn't boring, it isn't out of reach."

Shapiro's teaching is untraditional, rooted in methods she learned in a Juilliard seminar for music students who volunteer in the New York public schools.

She has cast aside the conventions of elementary music instruction: the drills, the scales, the rote memorization of whole and half notes. Instead, she uses hands-on activities designed to inspire an interest in music.

In her special education class, for example, she scrapes two rhythm sticks back and forth, then asks the pupils to describe the sound.

"Like washing dishes," says Cavenia Chase, 9.

"Cutting down trees," says Toby Rogers, 7.

By the end of the half-hour session, she has the six children composing their own rhythms using sticks, sandblocks and triangles.

"This calms them down and gives them another perspective," says Mary Ryan, the special education teacher. In the next class, the pupils try to imagine how to draw sounds -- a long line for the triangle, a jagged squiggle for the rhythm sticks. The class ends on a high note, with the 17 children playing instruments in harmony. Shapiro tells them to pick a title for their composition. Their choice: "Miss Rachel's Fantastic Music Class."

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