“Can We Play It Again?”
Serving those students is the job of the district’s 28 itinerant music teachers who instruct groups of up to 30 kids, some 400 in all, at five or more schools every week. Recently, I caught up with three: percussion instructor, April West; winds teacher, Harvey Tellinghuisen; and string man, Steve Luchs. Each wheels in their black bags and instrument case, teaches one or two ensembles for 50 minutes, packs up, and freeways on.
At Linda Vista elementary, a class of fifth-graders streams into the school auditorium. As they enter, West has her drum machine pulsing, an overhead projector ready to go. Dressed in black pants and a blue sweater, she carries a whistle, a plastic cowbell at her waist, and a constantly moving persona. Thirty kids arrange themselves in two parallel semicircles at drum stations, each with chair, drum pad, and sticks at the ready. West holds up a three-ring binder with musical terms that she asks them to demonstrate. She shouts, “Here’s the beat. One, two, three, rest.” On the overhead, she projects this rhythm in notation. Next she grabs her trombone (she’s a multitasker extraordinaire) and plays the one-two-three while she beats the cowbell. Three quarter notes and a rest. Symbol (reading music) and sound (making music) are joined from the get-go.
Before she starts, I ask, How do they take to percussion? “Everyone loves drums,” she says, speaking in measure-like snippets. “It’s incredibly innate. Immediate gratification. You hit the pad, you get the sound. This is an easy job as far as motivation goes.”
Learning is playing. Everyone’s involved. Total teamwork, although it’s clear that several kids still lack the knack for holding the sticks. This West tries to fix as she moves from kid to kid. In front of the 30 are three or four special-ed kids, whose job is to keep a steady beat on box drums with the drum machine. (Special-ed kids respond to playing a rhythm easier than they do to reading one.) As the children continue the beat (almost everyone wears jeans, a sweatshirt, and sneakers), West directs their eyes back to her visual cues. She whispers and shows the word “piano,” and they quiet the beat. She gets loud and shows “forte,” and they herald it back. Next, she shows a dotted half note and a quarter rest. They play the note, and she reminds them what a rest means: “Silence is not nothing.”
Every so often, West lets them “go,” that is, pound away on their own. The sound is tribal, cacophonous. Whistling to grab their attention, she refocuses on drills. She enforces discipline by alternating rest position, the kids standing one step back from the drum pad, and play position, the kids stepping forward and picking up sticks. She has them beat out “Jump, in the Mississippi,” a phrase, which is accented on the one, that builds a swarming sound. Which, of course, they speed up. “You can’t help it,” she says. “It’s human to speed up. So you have to fight your human nature.” Which brings about a quick lesson on “tempo.”
Later, West alternates “Jump, in the Mississippi” with three visual cues: “soli,” where a hand-picked few play; “tutti,” where all play; and “improvise.” What’s “improvise”? She stops to explain. “Something simple or something complicated, but it has to fit with the beat.” She illustrates by playing a dozen phrases, which, one by one, the students mimic (“shave and a haircut, two bits” is one), all in time with the beat. Back to the “soli” and the “tutti,” and then she lets them loose to “improvise.”
Fifty minutes soon rumble by, and my sense is that West has given them a group discipline that no other subject or activity, except, perhaps, sports and dance, allows them. Music helps kids access a learning mode the academic subjects do not allow. Maybe that’s why music is so popular. The kids know better than we do the vicissitudes of learning.
As part of the district’s “exploratory” program, West teaches at two schools a day, five schools a week, for nine weeks. Her cluster is followed or preceded by nine weeks with a wind, a brass, or a string instructor. Each unit exposes fifth-graders to hands-on music-making. Blow. Pluck. Pound. Bow. Plus the rudiments: tempo, dynamics, notation, rests, note values, meter, rhythm and beat (they are different), genres, and improvisation. The hope is that they’ll choose an instrument, join an ensemble, take lessons (the winning formula is an excited kid and a supportive parent), and enjoy a respite from the daily five hours spent on English, math, science, and social studies. And blossom artistically, which is just as important, every music teacher tells me, as blossoming academically. Maybe more so.
At the beginning of each school year winds-and-brass instructor Tellinghuisen and string instructor Luchs hold an assembly for fourth-graders. The pair lay the instruments out on tables — flute, clarinet, trumpet, sax, and trombone, as well as the violin family. They show off the wonders of each — the slide punch of the trombone, the exuberance of a fiddle tune — creating a sort of Young Person’s Guide to orchestra and band. “We bring the kids onstage, too,” Tellinghuisen notes, “and let them try to make a sound. They see that it’s not just us, but they can do it, too.” Whoever wants to play plays, and hundreds choose instruments, which typically they rent from a music store. In an ensemble, students meet twice a week, learning basic technique and group playing and performance.
I sat in with both teachers at Hickman elementary in Mira Mesa. Tellinghuisen, who’s been at this for a couple of decades, tells me he concentrates on a few notes at first, getting students to make a tone on a wind or brass instrument by “tonguing each note” on “Hot Cross Buns.” As we talk, the class sets up their chairs and music stands, moistens lips and reeds; in a flash they’re working into “Rock Star,” Mozart’s “Twinkle, Twinkle,” renamed. “Clarinets, first measure, I want to hear you tongue the notes, one, two, ready, go.” “Flutes, make sure I hear that tongue go ‘tu.’” The lesson is regimented, a good thing for an ensemble with uneven strengths. Tellinghuisen conducts the class in one continuous meter, the steadily silent ticking of 4/4. It seems to pulse unheard even when he pauses. On occasion, he points at each of the four trumpet players to solo. From one, nothing comes out: “Got to oil your valves at least once a week.” From another, the tone is too low: “Faster air, Matthew. Tighten your lips.”