At-risk students play their way to success

Volunteers teach kids piano, help build their self-esteem

Can Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" save at-risk kids from the mean streets of Saskatoon?

Music teacher Richard Dub thinks so. That's why he launched the "Heart of the City" music program at Pleasant Hill Community School here.

It's a very simple concept: individual piano lessons at school for children who would otherwise not get them.

Those who take part get one-on-one weekly instruction from an enthusiastic corps of volunteers, mostly music students at the University of Saskatchewan. The lessons are free, but children must practice regularly on electronic keyboards at school, before or after classes.

Through Heart of the City, piano lessons, a quintessentially middle-class perk, become a tool for learning responsibility, concentration, and self-esteem.

"It's always a surprise how much he learns," says Holly Siegel of her sixth-grade son, Raymond Sohnchen, one of the standouts in the program.

"They've had a sense of music being something that 'special people' do: 'This is magic,' " Mr. Dub says. "And if they can do this, [which] was so beyond their imaginations, what can't they do?"

Railroad tracks run through Saskatoon, and the Pleasant Hill Community School is definitely on the other side of them. Its Norman Rockwell-sounding name and its handsome brick edifice notwithstanding, the school is a tough environment. Barely half the students enrolled actually complete eighth grade. To minimize fighting, kids are not given recess. Students are mostly native Canadians, children whose families have fled the troubled tribal reserves and rural areas of northern Saskatchewan. Adjacent to the school is "the stroll," as it it known, the street where men in cars cruise for prostitutes. Most of the traffic comes from white men and Indian women and girls.

This is the life from which the curly-haired, gentle-voiced music teacher wants to save his students.

Dub is haunted by the memory of a particular 10-year-old girl who liked to drop by the music room after school to explore the sounds of the piano. He enjoyed listening to her. "Her hands met the keyboard very naturally," he recalls. "Her fingers were curved perfectly meeting the keys," he says, miming something he mastered only with some effort.

The girl's interest sparked his idea for the program. Tragically, though, she never took part: She attempted suicide later in the year and did not return to the school.

Heart of the City teachers begin at the very beginning: They require proper posture and correct hand positions.

Kristie Barber likes to start the kids off with a simple two-hand version of "Hot Cross Buns," which she can teach in their first lesson. For repertoire, she focuses on "good music" she thinks the students will like.

She will teach this fall at a community school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, bringing the Heart of the City there.

"You have to have a hook to get them interested, to make them understand that this is something they can do," says Keitha Clark, another of the teacher corps. She doesn't hesitate to abandon the syllabus if she thinks something else will keep the kids' attention. The theme from the movie "Titanic" has been a hit. "And I have a kid who loves 'Ode to Joy,' " from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, she says. "She has so much fun with it!"

Why "Ode to Joy"?

"It's a well-written melody, familiar because it's used in the 'Drink Milk - Love Life' commercial," Ms. Barber volunteers. "And it moves stepwise - the kids can sit down and start to pick it out - da-da, da-da, da-da, you know, and then they can get the rest of it."

The program, which includes 100 children in Saskatoon and another 60 elsewhere in the province, starts its sixth year this fall. Pleasant Hill's principal has credited Dub with significantly slowing student attrition at the school. Dub says he's received calls from people as far away as Vancouver and Toronto who want to start something similar.

For both the students and the teachers, there are a lot of little "Aha!" moments along the way. "Like just now," says Raymond Sohnchen, "when Mr. Dub was teaching me how to do part of my jazz tune. I was going, 'Yes, I'm doing it!' "

"A lot of them don't have a lot of support to succeed," says Tara Woods, who taught this past year at Westmount School, not far from Pleasant Hill. "They might never discover that they're good at it unless they have this opportunity."

In weekly lessons, the young teachers don't get close enough to their pupils to know what's going on in their lives. "They don't have to tell you, they can tell you through the music," Ms. Clark says.

Of these children generally, she says, "Lots of time we just see the problems. We don't see the potential, we don't see all the good that's going on in their lives."

Clark grew up on a farm. Her weekly music lessons involved a 140-mile round trip. "It was really important that I had that, out in the country," she says. Music "changed my life profoundly. I know what it was like to have one teacher who saw my potential - who listened to me."

Eventually her parents decided they weren't making a go on the farm and moved to Saskatoon. Her experience coming from the farm is echoed by that of Sandra Montgrand, whose daughters, Shanna and Savannah, are in the piano program at Pleasant Hill.

She hails from Turner Lake, "way north" of Saskatoon, but moved because "unemployment rates there are high," she says.

"My girls used to be very, very shy. But they've slowly come out of their shells," she says. "The university recitals they go to train them in manners," she adds, referring to field trips to see older students perform.

Dub hopes to keep expanding the program until it bridges all 12 grades.

Prof. Don Harris, chairman of the University of Saskatchewan's music-education department, says that through music, "we get to know our inner selves.... Children will say, 'I can't put it into words, but I can put it into sounds.' " He adds, "I find that a lot of kids are brought to a sense of awe, which is a spiritual experience to me - made available by music.... Musicians take us to places we've never been."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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