The Long Way

Classic Arts Features   The Long Way
The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra goes back to school.

Wes Kassulke's music room at Long Elementary School is decorated with pillars — drawings of Romanesque columns that stand for the "pillars" of music: pitch, rhythm, dynamics, harmony, and tempo. Out in the hallway hangs a large diagram showing the various sections of an orchestra, which are illustrated with pictures of some very familiar faces: percussionists Richard Holmes and Tom Stubbs, trumpeter Gary Smith, trombonist Tim Myers, cellist Bjorn Ranheim, conductor Scott Parkman, and violinist Debbie Bloom — all SLSO musicians who, over the last few weeks, have visited Long Elementary, which is in the Lindbergh School District near St. Louis.

As becomes clear from first meeting him, Kassulke is just the sort of person you would want teaching your children. He possesses a gentle quality and is clearly patient, attentive, and enthusiastic — especially on this day in which Bloom is returning to teach and entertain kindergarteners.

The violinist is already in the music room tuning her instrument. Soon a long line of five- and six-year-olds is filing in. "Let's sit in our spots," Kassulke calls out, and about 20 kindergarteners take their seats on the floor in a remarkably orderly fashion. When they are requested to scoot forward to make room for yet another 20 or so classmates, they do so with enthusiasm. "You're good scooters," Bloom tells them.

Kassulke quickly attracts the students' attention. "Today we have a special visitor from the Saint Louis Symphony," he says, speaking in a voice so warm and embracing it would have made Mr. Rogers proud. "Let's give her a nice round of applause and let's be good listeners as she shares with us the violin."

When the applause subsides, Bloom introduces herself by playing a movement from a pretty Bach partita. The children are mesmerized. After receiving another round of applause, Bloom asks the students, "Who knows what the violin is made out of?"

"Wood!" many of the children cry out, too excited to wait to be called upon.

"Let's count the strings," says Bloom.

"1-2-3-4," the children say in unison.

Bloom holds up her bow. "And what is this called?"

"Horsehair!" says one student, already a step ahead of the lesson.

Bloom shows them that there is more than one way to play a violin. First, she plucks the strings; then she strums the instrument, like a guitar or ukulele.

"I have a guitar!" exclaims one eager kindergartener. "I have one, too!" says another, not to be outdone. "We have an electric guitar at home," a third child adds to the discussion.

"I think it's time for a game," Bloom says. "Has anybody seen baby bunnies in their yard? Make your fingers like bunny ears and move them up and down in rhythm while I play. Then, when I stop, put your hands in your laps." The children's hands bounce in the air to the music, then disappear in the silence.

"Let's play another game," says Bloom. "When I play very loud, I want you to stretch your arms toward the sky. When I play softly, I want you to curl into a little ball."

To the sound of Bloom's violin, the children rise up and curl in, rise up and curl in — learning with their bodies and minds a basic lesson about opposites.

Kassulke tells Bloom that the children already know the Italian word for "loud." "Forte!" the children say loudly. And they know the Italian word for soft, too: "Piano!" they shout just as loudly.

"Time for Mole Music," announces Bloom, in preparation for the main event. "Do any of you know what a mole is?"

One boy offers an answer, it appears, more founded on belief than experience: "It has a pink nose, with teeth that stick out, and it eats frogs."

Kassulke reads Mole Music, turning the pages of the book so the class can see the illustrations as Bloom provides musical accompaniment. Mole Music is the story of a mole who lives in the ground. One night, reads Kassulke as Bloom plays along, Mole watches a TV program that features a concert violinist and he experiences "the most beautiful music he had ever heard." He sends for a violin, but when it arrives, his first attempts at music-making — here Bloom makes a wretched screech on the strings — are awful. But Mole persists, and gets better and better until he can play a song. Bloom plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and the children sing with no prodding.

Before she plays another pretty tune for them, she asks, "What is the season we are in now?" "Fall," the children answer. "And what is the season when everything blooms and grows?"

And with that Bloom plays "La primavera" from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. It sounds as if all the world is beginning.

The visits to Long Elementary School by Debbie Bloom and other SLSO musicians are part of the SLSO's Education and Community Partnership Program and the E. Desmond Lee Fine Arts Education Collaborative.

Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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