The magnificent musical mentor

Gorman Crossing teacher called an instructor of note

November 26, 2006|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,sun reporter

Dressed in assorted athletic wear, Nijel Thomas, Emilio Rodas and Kyle Kroll raced to the metal stand and jockeyed for position. Then they carefully raised their beloved wooden instruments, moved their arms in a repetitive motion and produced a series of sweet-sounding notes.

The trio of fifth-grade boys at Gorman Crossing Elementary School in North Laurel is part of the school's infectious musical spirit, where it is cool to play an instrument. Almost everyone is doing it.

When they are old enough -- third-graders are the youngest eligible for the program -- pupils jump at the chance to participate. That enthusiasm has translated to a near 65 percent participation rate among the school's third,- fourth- and fifth-graders. Educators say 30 percent is high.

"That is a very large percentage, and, of course, speaks to the quality of the program and the quality of the person involved in the program," said Rob White, instructional facilitator for Howard County schools.

Pupils, parents and staff members attribute the popularity to the work of one man -- Ron Bowman, the school's band and strings teacher for eight years.

"He's like the best teacher I've ever had," said Emilio, 10, who has played the viola for two years. "He spends time with us. He helps us."

"Ron is a teacher's teacher," said Principal Cheryl Logan, who has been at the school for three years. "He likes the kids. He likes to watch them grow. You sit there in awe. He's tremendous. I don't think I'll ever run into another one like him."

Bowman said the key is staying positive.

"I always try to find the silver lining. I want the kids to understand it is a risk-free class. They don't have to be perfect. I put a safety net in the classroom. Even with mistakes, they know I will be happy. "

Pupil after pupil reverberated Bowman's words.

Justin Ballmer, 10, plays the trumpet because it is Bowman's favorite instrument.

"He really doesn't yell at you when you make a mistake," Justin said. "He'll say `It's really good' when you play correctly."

A quick visit to one of Bowman's half-hour string classes also speaks volumes.

There was little to no chattering among the pupils in the portable classroom -- the location of Bowman's lessons. He moved to the larger portable this year to accommodate more musicians, whose parents can pay up to $30 a month in rental fees.

During a rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock," Bowman's voice rarely elevated, and he regularly encouraged his young charges.

"The tuning sounds very good, violas, violins," said Bowman, his hand gently swaying through the air as he directed the tempo. "Excellent Erica. ... Bend your wrists. ... Rest, two, three, four. ... That's a good `F.'... Great listening, band."

The results of Bowman's positive feedback and calm demeanor are evident.

The awkward squeaks associated with young string players are few and far between. And Bowman rarely interrupts the class to remind the pupils to follow a direction or to pay attention.

"That's gonna be a good one," Bowman said after pupils finished the song that includes a series of plucks that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser at the school's Dec. 13 holiday concert.

Bowman's influence has spilled over to nearby Murray Hill Middle School, Gorman Crossing pupils' next academic stop.

Kathy Hersey, the band director at Murray Hill, can spot Gorman Crossing pupils the minute they pick up an instrument.

"The kids are just really great coming from there," Hersey said. "There is a high level of musicianship."

Added Hersey: "We have a good rapport between us. The kids want to come here and continue. They have a great background with Mr. Bowman."

The pupils at Gorman Crossing show a genuine affinity for music. Emilio started playing the viola at the urging of his mother. Now she can't get him to stop.

"You get to express what you can do, your talent, with the instrument," Emilio said.

Why the viola?

"The violins get the melody," Emilio said. "But we give them the melody. It's like a mixture."

Erin Kane, 10, who also plays viola, said the hardest part is getting the right rhythm and tune. But the payoff is well worth the effort.

"People smile when they watch you play," Erin said. "It's a good feeling."

To accommodate such a large number of musicians, Bowman works full time at the school, which is a rarity in elementary schools.

One reason the program is so successful is that playing an instrument at Gorman Crossing is a family affair.

"I know their older" children, said Bowman, who has built a reputation with families at the school. The younger siblings "have been to the concerts, they want to do the same."

Jose Rodas, Emilio's father, loves the structure and skill level that Bowman has given his son.

"He is in advanced strings now," Rodas said with pride. "That helped him develop into other instruments, like guitar."

Rodas called Bowman "an excellent person and a great teacher."

Bowman acknowledged that the high participation rate is a "scheduling nightmare." All his pupils have a half-hour instruction once a week; some who play multiple instruments have additional lessons.

"You have to have a staff and a principal who support it," Bowman said. "I am pulling kids from classrooms. Teachers are having to help students with missed work. The teachers at Gorman Crossing never complain about the kids being pulled out. It is supported 100 percent."

All the hard work is worth it after a successful concert, or even on an average day when trumpet players eagerly lined up outside the portable classroom, waiting for their lesson.

Recently, as trumpet players lined up outside Bowman's classroom, Kenny Rukenbrot, a 10-year-old fifth-grader, couldn't help but comment on the melodic sounds from the string class.

"They're really good," he said.

Almost immediately, Justin Ballmer, the Bowman-inspired trumpet player, responded: "We are, too."

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