One concert is assured of a sellout at Powell Symphony Hall this month. When the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra takes the stage for its second annual LinkUp! concert, they will be accompanied by nearly 3,000 fourth-through-sixth graders in attendance who will have been practicing their recorders all year in preparation. SLSO Assistant Conductor Scott Parkman will raise his baton, both students and orchestra will raise their instruments, and what follows will be one of the most amazing renditions of Rossini's William Tell Overture that anyone will ever hear.
This is the second season that the Education and Community Partnership Program of the SLSO, working with nearly 50 regional schools as well as the Des Lee Collaborative, has brought Carnegie Hall's renowned LinkUp! program to area students and teachers. It's back by overwhelmingly popular demand.
Sheila King, who teaches music at Woodland and Hanrahan Elementary in the Jennings School District in North St. Louis, admits that she had her doubts last year, when she brought her students to Powell. "I was a little apprehensive about how the kids were going to be able to follow the Symphony," she recalls. "But once they started I could not take the grin off my face. I loved it, loved it, loved it."
The students agreed. In one of many letters of thanks that the SLSO received last year, a Clark-Vitt Elementary School student wrote, "It was a complete inspiration, a masterpiece. I was so good, it was beautiful, just beautiful." Another from St. Gabriel the Archangel School responded, "I appreciate you having my school's choir come to the LinkUp! concert. It was the bomb!"
Through the Weill Music Institute, the Carnegie Hall LinkUp! program‹which has served New York schools for over 20 years‹has created regional partnerships in nine states: Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Texas, West Virginian, and here in Missouri. The year-long curriculum includes a study guide, CDs, and recorders provided for each student. "The workbook teaches them music theory through cartoons," King explains. "It talks about placement of notes. When the kids are getting involved they're not only learning the theory in the book, but transfering that information into fingering on the recorder. It's very thorough. By the time they have finished one concept, they have said it, they have sung it, they have listened to it on the CD, they've clapped their hands to the rhythms, and then they have played it. They love this. Every time I come in to the classroom they're so excited."
Sister Pat Giljum, Director of Fine Arts at the Catholic Education Office, participated in training workshops in New York City for the LinkUp! program last year and trained local teachers over the past two seasons. One of the positives of the program, she says, is how the curriculum is integrated with what the teachers are already doing in the classroom. "The curriculum guide is based on the elements of music," she says. "It's not something that's superimposed over what the teachers already teach." Students learn the elements of music through study, through practice, and through performance. "Variation was the emphasis last year," says Giljum. "So they learned what themes and variations are. What they then produced and played with the Symphony were variations on the different pieces of music.
"This year the focus is on melody," Giljum adds. "Learning what melody is, how it's formed, and what are the different parts of it. The kids love William Tell. I know they're having a ball."
Giljum and King offer strong support for the LinkUp! program and what it provides the children of the St. Louis area. "The curriculum is based on national standards," explains Giljum. "That's what we strive to teach. It goes right along with what we're doing, and that's very, very important. In addition to that, it gives them self-confidence. It gives them self-worth. It teaches them how to collaborate, how to work together, and how to be happy for each other when they get the music to sound right. Those kinds of things are extremely important and this program does that."
King views the visit to Powell and the performance with the Orchestra through the perspective of her North St. Louis student body. "We sat in the back, and across the aisle was a lady I work with on the Des Lee Collaborative board," she says, "and we were just overwhelmed by the sound. I had tears in my eyes. It was a wonderful experience for the parents. A lot of the kids in the Jennings School District do not get to go to fine-arts events or to be involved in activities like this. They don't have private lessons. Having them be involved in this was extremely educational for them, as well as an emotional high. When the parents walked in I had several who had never stepped inside the doors of Powell Hall. They were sitting next to me and they were just overwhelmed. They kept turning around in their seats, looking around. It was truly surround sound. It was the most wonderful thing I think my kids had ever been involved in, the parents as well. They talked about it for weeks."
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.