New score for young city musicians

Several music colleges are stepping up their involvement to educate K-12 students in American urban areas where arts classes are minimal at best.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

To ring in the new year, some prominent music institutions are reaching out to offer free education to young people. Berklee College of Music in Boston will tap into its alumni network to create a national version of its City Music Program for disadvantaged students. In New York, Carnegie Hall and The Juilliard School are teaming up to bring classical music fellows into classrooms. Both programs plan to expand to serve at least 50 sites within three to five years.

"Music is part of our culture, and part of the responsibility of any musician is to pass that culture along, both by performing and also by teaching others what they've learned," says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of MENC: The National Association for Music Education.

Such partnerships are just a start in meeting the needs of the approximately 50 percent of students in the United States who don't have sufficient music education in their schools, Mr. Blakeslee says. The federal No Child Left Behind law identifies the arts as a core subject, but so far it's only holding schools accountable for reading, math, and science. School leaders are shortsighted if they cut the arts to focus solely on those subjects, he suggests.

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"A music program sometimes can engage the kids ... in their entire school day in a way that helps them achieve better in science, math, everything," Blakeslee says. A number of studies in recent decades have shown correlations between music education and better academic performance. And a recent survey, sponsored in part by MENC, found that nearly 90 percent of school principals believed music education helped reduce dropout rates.

Music enhances ... math skills?

"I remember struggling with fractions.... I didn't get it till I started playing music and learning that there were four quarter notes in a measure," says Curtis Warner, executive director of Berklee City Music. He says some students who were in danger of failing out of school joined the Berklee program and made a quick turnaround through the motivation and discipline of music. Alumni include music teachers in public schools, a law school graduate, and performers touring with well-known artists such as Keyshia Cole.

Berklee engages students right away with popular music – songs like "Crazy" by the group Gnarls Barkley – and then teaches them a more analytical approach to form, rhythm, and harmony. "We really want the kids to play first," Mr. Warner says. The same song that they're learning in a private lesson, they'll perform in an ensemble and study in a theory class. They learn something about classical music, too, but come at it with more open minds after starting with familiar styles.

Community organizations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Washington, and Los Angeles will join the City Music Network this winter, once Berklee alumni have been trained to teach the curriculum. A virtual community – made possible through a partnership with Apple Computer – will give students at all the sites the ability to meet and even perform together online.

A learning community around a shared love

In her experience with City Music, Ashley Rodriguez recalls how important it was to be surrounded by friends who shared her passion – "people who understood what I wanted in life." As a high schooler in Chelsea, Mass., near Boston, she knew she wanted to sing and study at Berklee, but without the scholarship she earned through City Music, she would have had to go deep in debt, or give up her dream in order to take a scholarship at a state college.

Now she's part of the Berklee City Music All Star Ensemble, a group of graduates of the program who earned scholarships to Berklee and who are embarking next week on a West Coast tour to promote the national expansion. During a recent rehearsal in a basement studio, she and her fellow musicians grooved to the R&B rhythms of Jill Scott's hit song "Golden."

City Music "changed the way I thought about music," says Anant Pradhan, the group's shaggy-haired saxophonist. "It wasn't just a hobby anymore.... It's hard to figure that out if you don't have a program like this helping you along the way." His parents wanted him to take the liberal arts path, but by earning a scholarship, he was able to forge ahead with music.

Vocalist Apollo Payton was already enrolled at a performing arts high school in Boston when he joined City Music, but being exposed to a college environment pushed him to a new level. "Some people think music is easy, but when you get into it deep, music isn't just something to do, it's a language.... You have to know the terms." That takes a lot of studying. "It's a wonderful program for kids," he says. "It gives them an opportunity to take their raw talent and formulate it into something great."

Teens naturally gravitate toward new technologies, and Berklee uses online lessons and practice sessions to enhance face-to-face teaching. David Mash, Berklee's vice president of information technology, recalls one student who went to YouTube.com to download concert clips of John Mayer playing a guitar piece. He tried to learn it by mimicking the hand motions, but was having difficulty. A professor witnessed this and was able to show the student why: His hand was smaller and his guitar neck bigger than Mayer's. "The coupling of ... videos from the Internet with a trained eye from a teacher really makes a very powerful two-sided approach to teaching and learning," Mr. Mash says.

Growing the next generation of musicians

Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall's executive and artistic director, had seen how inspirational it can be for great musicians to connect with children when he managed the London Symphony Orchestra. As in London and many other cities, he saw that "a vast number of kids simply don't have access to music in the New York school system." He wanted to set up a fellowship to train instrumentalists to be educators, and he found eager partners in Juilliard president Joseph Polisi and school superintendent Joel Klein.

This semester, 16 recent music-college graduates from around the US will receive a fellowship to perform together, take master classes, receive education training, and work with music teachers in public schools one-and-a-half days a week. In the coming years, the plan is to sponsor 50 such fellows. "It's not only about reaching 50 schools, it's also the fact that it creates a template that other great cultural institutions can reproduce," Mr. Gillinson says.

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