AS the visitors walk into Val Freeman's first-grade class, they witness no ordinary welcome, but a rousing fanfare from a little-chair orchestra. Finger cymbals, sticks, triangles, and drums clash with abandon. A pigtailed girl poses as conductor, waving a baton. Cutting through the cacophony is Handel's ``Largo,'' played on the piano by Miss Freeman.
``And now our Music Manager will introduce us,'' she says after the ruckus dies down. ``Steven?''
Up from the fidgety ranks of the triangle section pops Steven.
``Good afternoon. Welcome to our Friday Concert,'' he says slowly, his eyes fixed on the teacher as she prompts him in whispers. ``We are now going to play a piece by Johann Sebastian Bach.''
Watching this lesson in music appreciation at Columbus Elementary School is like taking a journey back in time. The very presence of Freeman's slightly battered upright recalls the days when all elementary school teachers were required to play the piano.
``If you didn't play the piano, you didn't have a job, says Freeman, a teacher since the 1950s. ``Now it's more of an oddity.''
For these 23 six- and seven-year-olds, nothing could be more natural than to make music around the piano. In an age in which artistic disciplines get short shrift next to the ``three R's,'' Freeman has adjusted the balance and moved music into the spotlight with math, reading, and social studies.
``Music is so vital - it goes to the depth of a person,'' she says. ``If you don't have time for creative activities, you never get to know the whole child.''
The New Rochelle school system, where Freeman teaches, strongly supports the musical disciplines. Across the United States, however, there are still ``great inconsistencies'' in the level of commitment to and funding for music education, says Charles R. Hoffer, president of the Music Educators National Conference in Reston, Va. While a suburban school may have a progressive music program, an adjoining city school may lack the most basic equipment and facilities, he explains.
``At times we take three steps forward and two steps back,'' says Mr. Hoffer. In the long-term view, ``we're inching forward.''
The current national picture for music education is bleak, according to this year's report by the National Endowment for the Arts, titled ``Toward Civilization: the Role of Arts in Education.'' The 182-page study boldly concludes that ``basic arts education does not exist in the United States today.'' At the elementary level, the report says, most teachers ``have had little formal training in the arts.''
An accomplished pianist, Val Freeman makes the piano her ``desk.'' From there she commands the scene, sometimes playing musical interludes as the children move from one subject to the next.
``She's atypical,'' says Hoffer. ``Most new teachers today would be unable to do what this lady's doing.''
Freeman surrounds herself with a clutter of musical props and teaching aids - musical instruments, books on composers, composition paper, a record player, and tape recorder.
Not many first-graders today could boast that they know how to sing ``Good Day to You'' in German, French, Spanish, and Italian. But it's a snap for Freeman's students, for whom singing is just a normal part of each day.
Normal, too, is a weekly session with the school's full-time music teacher, Susan Muller. Mrs. Muller spends 30 minutes a week each with Grades 1 through 3, and one hour a week each with the fourth- and fifth-graders. Though the music educators' conference recommends that Grades 1 through 6 spend no less than 100 minutes a week on music, ``We make the best of what we have,'' Muller says.
The school puts on winter and spring music concerts, has two choruses, and offers lessons in stringed instruments.
``Music is a way for kids to excel, even if they're not at the top of the class academically,'' Muller comments. ``For some kids it gives them just the boost they need - and that increased confidence may help them in other subject areas.''
The five other elementary schools in New Rochelle also have full-time music teachers, and the high school and the two middle schools benefit from full-time band and vocal instructors. In addition to concert and jazz bands, the high school has a full symphony orchestra.
``Our situation has been modeled throughout the county and state,'' says Norman Brooks, district supervisor of music education. ``Though it's still far from perfect, we pride ourselves in having a strong music program.''
``Things have been getting better and better. This year, I'm out of the `pit,''' says Muller, referring to the poorly ventilated room downstairs where she had taught music before. Now the school has converted an extra classroom upstairs into a new music room.
In Freeman's class, music is related to other subjects. During one math lesson, the teacher taps on a big drum and the children count silently the number of ``beats.'' Raising their hands, they show the finger-set they thought the beats represented.
``To learn anything, you have to learn to listen,'' says Freeman. She finds that music creates a relaxing, listening atmosphere that helps quiet down this bouncy age group. When the kids come in from recess, ``They put their heads down, and if I play soft music, it calms them right away,'' she remarks.
``A lot of these children are from disorganized homes, because Mom and Dad are out, and they need somebody just to help organize themselves. They have to learn how to learn.''
Columbus School serves many low-income families. Most of Freeman's students are Hispanic. New Rochelle as a whole, however, is more varied economically, says Mr. Brooks. Regardless of backgrounds, the community is ``highly supportive'' of music education, he says.
``When we have had any financial crisis, the community has come to the defense of the music program,'' Brooks says.
Freeman underscores the importance of teaching music in the early grades. Keys to success are strong parental support and educational ``consistency,'' she explains.
A boy she had in second grade years ago is now majoring in music at Yale University. ``He comes back from college and asks, `Would you like me to play the piano for the kids?''' says Freeman. While refusing to take credit for his success, she sees her role merely as ``trying to whet the appetite'' of youngsters for the creative arts.
``Many of our children have gone on to become professional musicians,'' says Brooks, ``either as performers, composers, conductors, or soloists. We've had them back for special programs, to give the children incentive....''
Whether it's a filmstrip on Handel, a trip to see the ``Nutcracker'' ballet, or the Friday Concert, Freeman sees no limit to what music education can achieve.
``You never know who you are touching,'' she says. ``If it's only one, it's all worth it.''