During the school day, James Phair carries all the authority of his position as principal of PS 107, a New York City elementary school in Flushing, Queens.
But on Thursday afternoons, when he plays the trombone with his school's Millennium Orchestra, he says, "I'm just the guy who can't hit the B-flat."
In an era when many school administrators wonder how to draw parents and the surrounding community into a closer relationship with what goes on inside a school building, PS 107 has come up with a unique solution.
This year the school created an orchestra open to all the school's students, parents, teachers, and administrators. There is no fee for participation, or for the music lessons offered as part of the experience. But one important condition is attached to the offer.
In order to ensure that all orchestra members are experiencing together the thrill and challenge of a fresh learning experience, each one must be willing to start from scratch with an instrument they've never played.
In addition, all must accept an unorthodox style of music education. Rather than relying on the standard practice of studying music basics first and then learning a piece, this group began in the fall by jumping immediately into the three pieces they would perform at an end-of-school concert, using the study of those pieces to learn about music.
"I've long felt we teach music all wrong in our schools," says Bob Perelmuter, a sixth-grade teacher and school arts coordinator at PS 107 who came up with the idea for the orchestra. But testing new ideas about music education was not Mr. Perelmuter's primary motivation for creating the orchestra.
"The nonmusical goals for this were as important as the musical," he says. "I wanted to do something that would bring the community in." In addition, he says, he wanted to design a learning experience that would level the playing field for the children and adults involved, allowing them to experience learning together as equals.
The struggle to keep music in school
For some of the longtime staffers at PS 107, the fact that there is music of any kind echoing in the school corridors today is a miracle in itself. Arts education was eliminated here in the 1970s. Although some teachers, like Perelmuter, who was the director of a school glee club, worked on a volunteer basis to keep some arts learning alive, there was no funding and no official support for arts activities for about two decades.
But in the mid-1990s, a $12-million matching grant from the Annenberg Foundation spurred the donation of an additional $24 million in public and private funding to restore arts education in New York City schools. The gift also allowed the creation of the Center for Arts Education (CAE), a group that has worked to establish partnerships between 80 public schools and 135 of the city's cultural organizations.
As a result, for five years now, violin lessons are required for all of the school's fifth- and sixth-graders, while third- and fourth-graders all study the recorder. In addition, New York-based Young Audiences, the school's arts partner, has brought arts extras like Mexican and Chinese dance and opera-writing workshops into PS 107.
Perelmuter, however, was looking for an activity that would both build on and expand the school's new focus on the arts. He got funding for his project from a variety of sources, including the CAE and Young Audiences, that would permit him to bring professionals in to teach the various instruments involved and to work with the orchestra as a whole.
But he wasn't sure how many members of the PS 107 community would really commit to the project. When he initially put up the sign-up sheet, he says, he hoped he would find at least eight or nine adults who would be interested.
He needn't have worried. In addition to 20 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students, the orchestra today includes 20 teachers, five parents, and the school's principal, secretary, and therapist.
In the ranks are also an administrator from Carnegie Hall and six professional musicians from the Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music, who both teach individual instruments and hold chairs in the orchestra. Rounding out the group is Joanne Bernstein, the executive director of Young Audiences and a professional musician herself, although here she plays an alto saxophone as a beginner.
The orchestra has rehearsed for two hours every Thursday after school throughout the school year, building up to its performance of the three pieces at PS 107's annual end-of-year concert.
The approach involved one hour of separate learning for each of the eight instrument groups, which include clarinet, flute, oboe, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, baritone, and percussion. Then there's an hour of rehearsal as an ensemble.
For some of the adults, learning with children has been a humbling experience. "The kids learn faster than we do, there's no question about it," Perelmuter says.
Could the adults talk a little less?
"The teachers talk too much," says Stephanie Ruiz, the only student in the five-member percussion section, who rolled her eyes during a recent rehearsal as the adults were chided for failing to pay strict attention to the conductor. "Kids are better at paying attention," agrees Angela Fabunan, a sixth-grade oboe player.
But the adults have their strengths. "The adults can push through, they stick with it," says Ms. Bernstein, who sits between two nine-year-olds during rehearsal. "They bring maturity and patience."
At a recent citywide meeting of the schools that are working with the CAE, interest was expressed in using the Millennium Orchestra as a model for greater community involvement in arts education. "You could use it for anything, for chorus, for dance, for visual arts," Perelmuter points out.
PS 107 has plans to expand the Millennium Orchestra next year by adding a string section. Some of the students involved say they will also be building on their connections to new instruments.
Sixth-graders James Cosgrove and Andrew Yi both learned the trombone this year and will be performing in the eighth-grade band next year - skipping a grade level on the basis of their freshly minted skills.
James's mother played a saxophone in the orchestra as well, but according to James, not as successfully. "She practiced a lot more than I did," he says, with obvious satisfaction. "But she just can't play like I can."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor