During Tellinghuisen’s second hour, a higher-level ensemble practices a set piece — in a minor key and Russian-sounding — for that evening’s Honor-band tryouts. He tells them with flat affect that they shouldn’t be nervous. Just breathe naturally and everything will be fine. You will survive. “Remember, in all the years I’ve been a judge,” he says, “at the end of the audition, I have never seen a dead body.”
In contrast is raffish Steve Luchs, who teaches the Suzuki violin method. The Suzuki method gets kids playing the weird-to-finger-and-hold violin before they learn to read music: bowing, standing, fingering, all have to be coordinated. (How easy the piano is in this regard: everything is in front of you; just put your fingers on the keys and play.) Luchs has his group of 15 stand in two lines. When the kids aren’t playing, they bob, energized by the activity. “Let’s do ‘Egg Roll,’” Luchs says, “which is also known as ‘Allegro.’” Once they begin, enthusiasm is concentrated in that rather pinched sound, not unlovely, of 15 violins searching for intonation. When they finish, one student asks, “Can we play it again?”
With a visitor in the room, Luchs shows off their repertoire. “French Folk Song” and “Song of the Wind” are two pieces they recently performed with players from the San Diego Symphony, who put on a workshop at Hickman. Getting loose, Luchs, who accompanies every tune on piano, notices one small boy with excellent bow technique, an unforced and fluid wrist. He has him play a solo and comments, “I’m going to call him ‘The Boy with the Golden Arm.’” Laughs all around. He stops, grabs the violin, and announces they’ll play “The Break,” from “Cripple Creek.” What this song is, he says, “is not Mozart,” and he plays a Mozartean snippet. “It’s not Bach,” he says, and plays a fugal snippet. “It’s fiddle music.” He saws away with Appalachian abandon. That loosens them up. No surprise, there’s a link between the teacher’s enthusiasm and the kids’ charging their batteries.
The most necessary trait of the grade-school music teacher is patience. Of the infinite kind. Patience for the years of hearing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” sourly intoned. For that scratchy sound of a violin bow too near the bridge. For the squeak of a clarinet or the honk of the trumpet. Patience. And then ringing approval with “Good!” whenever the group gets some portion of the lesson right.
I ask Tellinghuisen how many practice. He laughs and shows me a method book that has a log inside the cover. He used to require “practice reports” but found “it was an exercise in creative writing.” He quit asking for the assignment after he noticed one too many kids marking in ten hours a day. He doesn’t need a log. “You can tell if they’re practicing.”
Music’s Effect on Learning
I ask each of the three itinerant teachers how music affects their pupils’ home life, learning, and development. April West says that teachers tell her often that during music class, “they see their kids in a whole different light.” Those that struggle in the classroom can be “the best ones” in music. For West, it may be that “their brains are wired that way.”
What kind of music do they listen to at home? West says it’s “almost all hip-hop. That’s the culture. It’s totally their lives and their parents’. It’s everywhere. They heard it in the womb.” Her mantra for teaching music is to “tap into what kids already know.” Steve Luchs says they listen to the radio mostly. But if they hear “something classical or something they’ve played, it perks them up. They can’t wait to come back to class and tell us.” Once, his violinists learned to play a snippet from Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” A few heard the work in performance by the San Diego Symphony, then told Luchs, who also attended the concert, about it. “And I say, ‘But they didn’t play it as good as you.’ ” The irony is not lost on these teachers that most classical music, and some jazz, are “new music” for their young musicians.
Some music teachers have become advocates for their programs, speaking at board meetings, especially during budgetary talks. Such self-interest comes with the territory. West says that as an undergraduate in music education, she wrote three different papers for three different teachers, “defending my music program.” Part of her training was to investigate how, if attacked by a scissors-wielding board, she might save the program she had developed. She also says that the board needs to hear from students and parents more than they do from teachers. Parents don’t realize, she notes, how effective they can be when extolling or demanding arts programs for their children.
This spring, music teachers are regularly testifying at the Tuesday board meetings about the visual and performing arts program. On occasion, they bring their students to play, underscoring the tactic. Their goal as a group is to keep lobbing shots across the board’s bow before they make hiring decisions. In January, elementary music teacher Lucille Park testified that she herself is a good example of music’s power: “I was an ADHD kid, and music really helped me with concentration, focus, and self-discipline.” Retired teacher Dean Hickman, an instructor for 33 years in San Diego, stated that without music in the schools we may see “our musical world become overpopulated with talent that is emblematic of the first round of American Idol.” First-year elementary-school music teacher Lydia Cooley asked the board: “In an age of abbreviated texting and Facebook posting, are we not worried that kids will not know how to respond to art and music, to ballet and poetry?” At the five-hour-plus meeting, Tellinghuisen and other colleagues sat in the front row, supporting their fellow musician-speakers with “Save VAPA” signs.
Apropos of such continued enrichment, Luchs has a little test he likes to administer, ad hoc. “Next time you see your doctor,” he’ll tell a skeptical parent, “ask if he or she ever played a musical instrument. Next time you meet a gangbanger, ask the same question.” Tellinghuisen agrees. He recently spoke with the father of a former student, a man who had nothing but praise for Tellinghuisen’s teaching. Tellinghuisen asked what the son was now doing. “‘He’s about to graduate from medical school,’ the man said. ‘He credits music with all of his success because that’s how he learned to discipline his time.’ ”