First-graders get chance to play with the big kids

BSO sponsors pilot program to let youngsters make music

November 09, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,

It may have sounded like musical pandemonium to an outsider, but those violin squeals, twittering flutes and rich mahogany-sounding notes emanating from bass fiddles and cellos late yesterday morning in the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation Recital Hall at the Baltimore School for the Arts was nothing more than an orchestra finding its pre-concert voice.

Sitting on a small stage quietly and patiently taking this warm-up in stride were 17 first-graders from Harlem Park's Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

They are participants in OrchKids, an after-school program sponsored by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

The pilot program, which might be expanded to other city public schools, takes its inspiration from El Sistema, a nationwide program in Venezuela that offers musical instruments and training as well as social outlets to low-income children.

The Harriet Tubman students were wearing brightly colored T-shirts bearing the OrchKids logo and slogan: "Planting Seeds for a Bright Future."

OrchKids, which will cost $250,000 its inaugural year, was launched at Harriet Tubman Elementary in September. There are 25 students enrolled in the program.

Most of the initial costs have been underwritten by BSO philanthropists Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker, and BSO Music Director Marin Alsop, who pledged the final $100,000 installment of her 2005 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship to get OrchKids under way.

Yesterday's hourlong, side-by-side rehearsal included, in addition to the OrchKids, student musicians from the School for the Arts, and T.W.I.G.S. (To Work In Gaining Skills), a community outreach program sponsored by the School for the Arts for junior and senior high school students.

So this was the day the little kids got to play with the big kids and one really big kid, Jonathan Carney, acclaimed violinist and BSO concertmaster.

They were going to perform "Autumn" from Astor Piazzolla's Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, directed by School for the Arts conductor Rubin Caprilles, an El Sistema alumnus.

Carney, enthusiastic about the morning's program, reveled in the mix of students, their ages and abilities.

"It gives each student a chance to see what's next in life on their musical journey," he said.

Finally it was time, as a wave of Shhhhhhh's rolled through the room, accompanied by the sound of scraping chairs and fluttering sheet music being adjusted at the last minute on a sea of music stands.

It was the first time the OrchKids were playing alongside the School for the Arts and T.W.I.G.S. students, and their assignment was to provide musical accompaniment with rhythm instruments.

They played wooden egg shakers, rhythm sticks and guiros, a Latin American instrument with a serrated surface that is traditionally made from a gourd and played by scraping it with a wooden stick.

In addition, they performed an interpretive dance routine with brightly colored diaphanous scarves that had been passed out by Dan Trahey, program manager for OrchKids, and Molly Day Peterson, a music teacher at Barclay Elementary School, who assists with the OrchKids program.

Christopher Ford, head of the music department at the School for the Arts, mounted the podium to welcome assembled parents, guests and supporters.

"And we are very happy to have the OrchKids be a part of this," he said.

As the room filled with sounds of a haunting and sweeping tango, the OrchKids, like seasoned veterans, kept their eyes focused on conductor Caprilles and Trahey, who was working the rows where they were seated.

When Carney launched into a violin solo, the OrchKids were spellbound, but not so spellbound that they didn't fulfill their obligations at the appropriate musical moment.

"Watch me. Watch me," Trahey would gently say, urging them on.

At the conclusion of the piece, Carney mounted the podium and yelled, "Bravo!" as the audience applauded, and then graciously turned to face the OrchKids.

"You were just great," he said. "You were just beautiful to watch and listen to."

A few minutes later, the BSO concertmaster told a visitor, "This was their first major project, and they passed with flying colors. They were beautifully prepared."

Trahey and Peterson were equally pleased.

"The Piazzolla piece had a rhythm they liked and a danceable beat," Trahey said.

"I think we're planting seeds for their musical future," he said.

"They were simply amazing," Peterson said. "Remember, these children are 6 and 7 years old, and they were able to sit through an hourlong rehearsal."

Kim N. Sollers, principal of Harriet Tubman, was beaming from ear to ear.

"I think they're top-notch and ready for Broadway," she said.

One of the OrchKids, Ireoha Harris, a Harlem Avenue resident, agreed that she had had a good time as well.

"I got a chance to play an instrument," she said, "but I think I'd like to learn how to play the oboe."

And when a visitor asked why, she said, "Because it makes a funny sound."

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