Among Schoolchildren

Classic Arts Features   Among Schoolchildren
The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra adopted a school. Then the school was closed.

Marc Thayer speaks softly in his sun-warmed office on an early morning at Powell Hall. Thayer came to the Saint Louis Symphony more than a year ago to become director of the Community Partnership Program, which gets Symphony musicians directly involved with their neighbors‹in schools, in churches, in lunchrooms, in bookstores. The program is constantly evolving, growing, and finding new ways to deliver the benefits of music to the region.

"When I got here," says Thayer, "the Symphony's in-school programs were primarily involved in the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative, which takes us into more than 100 schools once, twice, or three times a year for assemblies and such. But even two visits per year is just a drop in the bucket in terms of the educational possibilities. We wanted to have in-school activity every week or every two weeks. We wanted to be involved as much as we could in as many ways as we could on a continual basis. That way we could have real lasting effects.

"The best way to help our neighbors," Thayer continues, "is to work with the school in the community, to work closely with families from the school, and to open up the Symphony and Powell Hall to those families. So there was a fascination with the idea of a weekly Adopt-a-School program."

"Adopting" the neighborhood school, Carver Elementary, was welcomed by both the Des Lee Collaborative, which added Carver to its list of schools, and Robert Nordman, the supervisor of music education for the St. Louis Public Schools. Symphony musicians worked closely with Carver's third graders. Students kept journals, adding a writing component to music instruction. They also utilized computer software for lessons in basic note reading and music theory.

"We really did adopt the school," says Thayer. SLSO musicians eventually visited every grade at Carver two or more times in the year. All of the classes at Carver visited Powell Hall for Kinder Konzerts, and, thanks to a grant from the Arts & Education Council, instruments were donated for students to create their own music. Family-night concerts were held, with both student and Symphony musicians participating.

Then came the controversial summer of 2003, with its heated debates over the future of the St. Louis Public Schools. A consultancy firm advised the School Board on the elimination of a number of city schools. One of those was Carver.

By the fall, the school that the Symphony had adopted was gone. However, members of the Community Partnership immediately set out to find where the Carver students and teachers had been transferred and found most of them at Dunbar Elementary.

Now Dunbar has been adopted by the SLSO, with weekly visits by Symphony musicians to the third grade. "We're off to a good start," says Thayer. "Dunbar's music teacher, Jason Brown, and the staff are involved and excited about making the program work."

Jefferson, Columbia, Bryan Hill Elementary Schools, and Cardinal Ritter Senior High have been adopted by the SLSO as well, receiving monthly visits and in-class instruction from Symphony musicians. The Symphony also has plans to begin work at Banneker Elementary, which received some of the students from Carver. The Saint Louis Symphony is now involved with more than 150 schools in the region every year.

On an unseasonably warm autumn morning, Jason Brown has less concern for musical expression than he does for written expression. "What does 'solo' mean?" asks the instructor. "Who can give me a sentence using 'solo'?" The students bend over their desks to write.

The brightly papered bulletin boards that surround the class reveal that this is unmistakably the music room. Vocabulary words cover the boards‹reggae, percussion, brass, classical, woodwind, soprano, measure, dynamics, alto, note, accidentals, band, octet, quartet, minor, duet.

In past weeks Dunbar students have heard SLSO Assistant Conductor Scott Parkman discuss what a composer does. "Who has heard of Mozart?" he asked.

"My cousin is named Mozart," one third grader claimed, "and he's crazy."

SLSO musician Lisa Lalev has played her oboe for the students. "This is my instrument," she instructed them. "It's made of wood and I make music with it by blowing wind through it. So it's called a woodwind." She's shown them the reeds she makes herself, and informed them that "all sound has roots in vibration."

The students have learned about individual instruments, and how those instruments are grouped as families. And how those families come together to make beautiful music.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony.

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