Seeing to it that the band plays on

PORTFOLIO

When music students need instruments and art teachers need supplies, Anana Kambon is there.

April 29, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF WRITER

Imagine teaching a saxophone lesson without the instrument.

How about teaching Shakespeare to a child who has never seen a play?

What if you wanted to talk about colors in a classroom without any crayons or paints?

Anana Kambon asks those kinds of questions on a daily basis. She's the mayor's special assistant for fine arts and education -- the first person to hold that position -- and is charged with doing whatever she can to bolster arts education in Baltimore public schools. Not an easy task in a city facing a budget crisis.

To be sure, the city school system is not altogether without arts. The Baltimore School for the Arts is renowned for performing and visual arts; Booker T. Washington Middle School has terrific programs; Roland Park Elementary-Middle School is integrating dance and other arts into its curriculum; and City College has a bang-up marching band.

But only a small minority of public school children attends those schools or takes part in those programs. And it's the large majority of kids without regular exposure to the arts Kambon is concerned about. "Not everyone is going to be a performing artist," she says, "but everyone can listen to music or look at a painting or appreciate the arts."

Besides, the state in 1997 set standards for arts education that all Maryland schools must meet. "My goal is to restore arts to the core curriculum of every school. My No. 1 focus is to meet the standards set by the state," Kambon says. "Beyond that we recognize that there are all kinds of experiences and learning opportunities that every child must have."

Kambon is the founder of KEPS preparatory center, which offers instruction to pre-school kids in math, language arts, computers and the arts. She is a co-owner of a Los Angeles-based music production and publishing company. And she's the mother of Camara, a 28-year-old, Emmy-award-winning composer who lives in Los Angeles, and Khari, a 26-year-old linguist who lives in Shanghai. Now, as a mayor's special assistant, she has developed an umbrella program called Be Instrumental, which raises money and organizes art education efforts.

The connection

Think of her as a sort of fund-raiser and liaison for arts in the public schools. Someone who knows an art teacher who needs supplies here -- and a potential donor there. You're a corporate executive who wants to give back to the community? An expert in wind-instrument repair with lots of free time? An arts organization whose members want to work with youths? Call Kambon's office. (She's at 410-396-9520.)

"I am not a funding agent -- I want that known -- but I do have contacts," she says. "And I can find pockets of individuals, corporations, community groups who are willing to help."

On a muggy spring day, Kambon stops in at Gwynns Falls Parkway Elementary School for an informal band performance. In the overheated gymnasium, where the music classes meet, band leader James Pope raises his arms above his head and shouts, "Look alive!"

The musicians -- about 30 third- to fifth-graders sitting in folding metal chairs -- wriggle to attention.

Pope signals the downbeat with a solid chord played on a portable keyboard, and the Gwynns Falls Parkway Elementary School Concert and Jazz bands swing into a thunderous rendition of "America the Beautiful." They follow that with a slow, sad New Orleans funeral march, then a peppy song by Kenny G.

It's an inspiring performance, especially when you consider...

Look, Ma, no instruments

Until late last fall, Pope taught music classes to the school's 500 students -- and directed the jazz band -- without the benefit of instruments. Except, that is, for plastic recorders (some of which he paid for with his own money) and "six cornets that we found in the boiler room," he says. Band members simply shared what was available.

"Before we had instruments, they played recorders, and they were introduced to music notation. They learned about the theory of different instruments, and we showed them pictures of instruments and descriptions of instruments. All leading up to actually playing the instruments."

Then, back on Oct. 30, through a program called "Save the Music" sponsored by the cable network VH1, the city bought $25,000 worth of saxophones, trombones, trumpets and drums -- enough for 30 Gwynns Falls students to play.

Morale improved. Attendance improved. Musicianship soared.

"Some of the kids in this group used to be in my office religiously," says Hartavia Johnson, the principal. "Honestly! They aren't coming in as much, because, first of all, they don't want to miss band, and, second, they've learned to discipline themselves a little."

'Save the Music'

Since 1999, the VH1 "Save the Music" project has provided instruments to eight Baltimore schools. Nationwide, the cable network project, which aims to reintroduce music to public schools, has provided instruments to schools in about 30 other cities.

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