Setting tone in city schools

Notes: After a decline, instrumental music is on the way back for young pupils in the system.

September 23, 2003|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Take a deep breath. Four beats. Breathe out. Four beats. Use your diaphragm.

It was a lot for five aspiring flutists to remember as they placed their mouthpieces to their lips, breathed in again and released their air with a "puh," hoping to coax a sound from their instruments.

"I hear three sounds and two possible sounds," said Anthony Spano, instrumental music teacher at Callaway Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore.

It was a big step for the fourth-graders in Spano's flute class, many of whom played a musical instrument for the first time yesterday.

Two years ago, there was no instrumental music class at Callaway, let alone instruments to play. Over two decades, budget cuts and back-to-basics academics had virtually squeezed fine-arts education from the city school system.

But the tone is changing, thanks to a collaboration between the city and the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which was established by the VH1 pop music cable channel in 1997 to restore instrumental education nationwide.

Since then, it has donated $25 million worth of instruments to about 1,000 public schools. Largely as a result of the VH1 initiative, 64 of Baltimore's 140 elementary and middle schools have or are planning to start instrumental music.

The program got its start here in 1999, when VH1 provided its first set of instruments to four schools, followed by four more the next year. At the time, only a handful of schools had instrumental music programs.

In 2001, the foundation offered to match whatever the city could raise to buy instruments. The Be Instrumental program has raised $600,000, mostly through corporate and private donations. With VH1 matches, the system has received new instruments worth $1.4 million.

"When I was in school, learning math and English, the courses I looked forward to were the art and music classes," said Mayor Martin O'Malley at a news conference a week ago announcing the latest donations at Callaway. "Over the years, they cut out music and art programs in the name of budget cuts. It's not a coincidence that academic performance has gone up since we put music back into the programs."

Fine-arts educators have long pointed to research showing the connection between visual arts, music, dance and theater education on one hand and a student's cognitive development on the other.

But school systems across the country, faced with tight budgets and pressure to raise test scores, have cut back on the arts in recent years, said Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education.

Attitudes have begun to shift slowly here and across the country, as parents demand a more extensive fine arts education, said Camay Murphy, a Baltimore school board member, daughter of bandleader Cab Calloway, and executive director of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center.

State curriculum regulations also require elementary and middle school students to take fine arts every year, but the implementation is up to local school systems, said Colleen Seremet, the assistant state superintendent for instruction.

In Baltimore County, students in kindergarten through eighth grade must take a music class every year, said Jaime Tucker, coordinator of music. Fourth-graders take an additional class in which they study the trumpet, clarinet and violin.

In the city, about 30 elementary schools don't offer music instruction, said Jill Warzer, elementary music curriculum specialist. But she said the city hopes to raise matching funds to provide instruments for all in the next few years.

"One of the significant things about music is it brings parents into schools," Warzer said. "They come to hear the students play and practice, and they're very proud of them. It also helps individual students. I've heard numerous stories about a student who was a problem, but since he has played an instrument, he's more focused."

Under the VH1 program, schools that receive instruments must hire at least a part-time instrumental music teacher, provide instruction during the school day and secure storage space for the instruments. In recent years, about 20 new music instructors have been hired, Warzer said.

One is Spano, 24, a Peabody Institute graduate in his second year teaching fourth- and fifth-graders at Callaway and at George G. Kelson Elementary School.

He was hired when Callaway received about 30 donated instruments, including flutes, clarinets, trumpets and trombones. In his first year, Spano put together a band and said his pupils developed not only playing skills, but a positive attitude.

Music gives them "a sense of belonging, a sense of camaraderie," he said. "They get together and talk about music, and compare the insides of their cases. They are a part of a group."

In his classroom yesterday morning, 20 pupils in the clarinet, trumpet and flute classes stared and fidgeted as Spano went through the parts of their instruments, demonstrated breathing exercises and showed them how to create an embouchure -- the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece.

In clarinet class, the pupils learned that the reed tickles when they blow into their mouthpieces. In trumpet class, they had to master the art of pursing their lips and "buzzing." And in flute class, they had to learn a tricky technique that sends air into then across the tone hole.

"It seems like the flute is the hardest thing," said Briana Jones, 9. But she managed to produce a true flutelike sound.

"I really want to do it. I like the way it sounds," she said.

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