Show Boston teacher Greg Gazzola a student and he'll tell you what instrument they'll play. Shy and petite? That's a flute. Beefy and macho? You're likely a tuba. Cavalier? You guessed it: a guitarist or vocalist.
The magic thing is, says the director of Madison Park High School's music department, when they meet in the school orchestra, all these different instruments and their owners sit side by side.
Popular lore may bring to mind the nerdy kid with an unwieldy trombone or cello struggling to slip unnoticed past the "in" crowd. But musicmaking is a popular pastime among an increasingly diverse group of students.
It's also a way to build links across social divides in a post-Littleton, Colo., world. The band or orchestra is an easy crossroads where jocks, nerds, and preppies can mingle over mellow harmonies and high-powered crescendos.
"It's not like if you're in an orchestra, you're a dork," says Hilary Lynch, an eighth-grade cello player. The sun sparkles off her braces as she sits near the manicured lawns of suburban Hingham (Mass.) Middle School. "Everybody knows someone in it."
That nonchalance may come as a surprise to adults who recall that rosin and cork grease, as well as quizzes on pneumonics like "Every Good Boy Does Fine," were siren calls for a fairly limited number of kids -most of whom steered clear of the athletic field.
To Adam Read-Brown, it's no surprise that kids with different interests populate the orchestra. "We talk about what's going on in school, this weekend, who saw 'Austin Powers,' the Red Sox on a losing streak," he notes. "It's not like the viola is my only interest. I also play soccer and karate."
Some musicians are even more entrenched in the sports world. Robert Nicholls Jr.,who just graduated from Madison Park, has another role that many wouldn't suspect: He was co-captain of his high school football team.
Robert says that belting out tunes on the trumpet gives him a sense of accomplishment, and his accomplishments are only bound by the limits of his enthusiasm and desire to learn.
"The thing about music is that I can see the benefits before my eyes," he says. "And others can see them, too."
"Music distinguishes." he adds. "When other kids know you're in music, you get a little more respect. If you play sax, people regard you more than if you play trumpet or clarinet, but you still get respect."
Kids have another motive as well: college admissions. Crew or track may make an application sparkle, but so does having played Mozart in the graduation concert. This is, after all, the age of multitasking. Students are likely to walk the halls with a clarinet tucked under one arm and a baseball mitt under the other. A backpack filled with computer books often brings up the rear. Burying your nose in one extracurricular activity may not be enough to land your dream job or entrance to a top college.
"I had a student who didn't get into Brown University, so I told him to call down and tell them he was in the orchestra," says Mr. Gazzola. "He auditioned and got in the second time around. He wasn't going there for music, but it was another facet to help him get where he needed to go."
Music may have greater pull in part because more music teachers now break from the traditional score. Some, like Linda Hanley in Hingham, stir up an end-of-year strings concert by placing "Wipeout," the high-energy 1950s surf song, front and center. Musicians may suddenly beat out rhythms on the back of their instruments. The Beatles' "Medley" or sheet music from Arthur and the Aardvark Show keep kids' feet tapping.
Gazzola concedes that orchestra isn't for everyone at his urban school. But percussion groups and jazz ensembles pick up where the strings leave off. In the end, the camaraderie is the ticket, with kids of all tastes hanging around on the worn couch and chairs outside Gazzola's office even when they don't have practice.
Gazzola points to one of the kids in baggy jeans and low-riding backpack. "When others see kids like Ben play, they say, 'Yeah Ben, Go Ben!'"
The student fell in love with the conga drums when he was first asked to play for church in fifth grade. "It's a rewarding way to keep them out of harm's way. If you can just get them to the point where they're dedicated, you can take them where you want from there."
Teachers and students admit that jokes about kids in the orchestra or band are still occasionally tossed around the hallways, but by a smaller group, and often in jest.
And parents like Ben's see it as a way to keep kids off the streets and on a good path."It's inspired Ben to become a music teacher and major in music," said Frances Hines. "He's really into it. Sometimes I think he's overly devoted.
"He goes downstairs and I say 'Ben keep it down.' But I'm grateful. I'm glad he chose something to keep him occupied."