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DOWNEY – Finding the music irresistible, scores of young children in the school auditorium follow the suggestion of the band leader and count out the beat with their fingers. One by one, the adults begin to smile as they look at their students and mouth the words to the infectious American classic – “I Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin.
In the best vaudeville tradition, the five musicians from the Downey Symphony Orchestra finish the assembly to spirited applause, with everyone wanting more. Many students are still moving to the music in their heads as they follow their teachers back to class.
Unlike a theater concert, these yearly school assemblies, featuring principal musicians from the Downey Orchestra, are a unique opportunity for students to hear live music in a very intimate setting. Up close and personal, the powerful vibrations of the trombone can be felt as well as heard. Sitting within feet of the performers, the students can see which instrument is producing those buttery sounds and learn the name “clarinet.”
With our modern reliance on electronic devices, we often forget that learning music is actually a multisensory experience, involving feeling and sight as well as sound. These intimate assemblies engage three of the five senses and allow students to interact with the musicians. It is also a participatory experience as students are encouraged to keep time and sometimes sing along.
“I always look forward to this program,” said long-time teacher Kristy Berk, at Maude Price Elementary. “It presents musical instruction in a way that is so engaging for the students.”
The Quintet Assembly is the core of the “Music in the Schools” program which has been sponsored by the Downey Symphonic Society since 1995. Designed by the late Tom Osborn as a sequential, multiyear, educational program, the assemblies introduce students to the elements of music and the various instruments of the orchestra.
The musicians demonstrate their instruments individually and perform selections that range from Dixieland jazz and movie scores, to mariachi melodies and pieces by Haydn and Stravinsky. The featured elements this year are rhythm and meter.
The lesson always has formal learning objectives, but the presentation is total fun. Quintet leader and bass player Mark Artusio, who has been teaching students of different ages for over 20 years, explains in a perfect 1st-grade teaching voice that, “Meter is a measure of time and helps us all count together.”
To help the students learn a 3/4 beat, percussionist Danielle Squyres then urges the students to sing the three-syllable word “ham-burg-er” as the quintet plays a short piece by Bizet.
When the piece is finished, trombonist Rob Coomber explains that his part for that piece was to play only two notes per measure: “hot-dog, rest.” It makes perfect sense to the 1st and 2nd graders in the audience.
The lesson goes deeper as Mark explains to the children that they are now ready to listen for the alternating meters (double and triple beats) in the selection “America,” one of the most dynamic pieces from the musical West Side Story.” Little hands and fingers move as the audience tries to keep time with the rhythm.
When their season ends in early April, the quintet will have presented this year’s assembly to nearly 10,000 students in seventeen local elementary schools – including four private schools. The assembly is presented twice at most schools to accommodate both lower and upper grades, for a total of 32 performances per year.
Each year different musical elements are featured on a rotating yearly basis so that students will not see the same assembly two years in a row as they move through elementary school. Future assemblies will feature melody and accompaniment, motive and theme, and style of music.
Careful thought is put into each program so that the music is accessible to young children as well as educational. Trombonist Rob Coomber was not shy about singing along with the children while the other musicians played the snappy theme from “SpongeBob SquarePants” to demonstrate the 2/4 meter.
The breath and depth of the assembly programs are also a musical education for most adults who are lucky enough to see it. Performances have included classical music by composers such a Rimsky-Korsakov as well as contemporary music from China,
The extensive classical training and professionalism of the musicians is a key factor in the effectiveness of this program. They are well-versed in all musical styles, and clearly communicate to students their love of music and their desire to share this art form.
Representing the woodwind section of the orchestra is Patty Massey, the principal clarinetist for the Downey Orchestra. She can swing to a jazz number as well as present something haunting and lyrical from a romantic composer.
Representing the string section along with Mark is violinist Carolyn Osborn, the concertmaster of the Downey Orchestra. While she is a recording artist who has performed at the Hollywood Bowl, and she can also make her violin dance like a fiddle for Americana numbers.
And no assembly ever ends without leader Mark Artusio reinforcing the all-time, number one lessons of the entire program – music is fun, and it is fun playing music together!
The last assembly by the quintet at a local school will be April 4 this year. Parents might wish to encourage their children to talk about what they see and think. The quintet hopes that all students will want to learn an instrument.
The quintet has survived all of these years through the generous donations of local organizations and individuals. The Helen and Larry Hoag Foundation and the Norbert and Ruth Hillecke Foundation are again offering matching grants for the “Music in the Schools” program. Anyone wishing to give further support can contact the Downey Symphonic Society, P.O. Box 763, Downey 90241, (562) 403-2944.
The final concert by the Downey Orchestra this season will be “To Russia and Back,” March 31, 2012, 8:00 pm at the Downey Theater.
Published: February 16, 2012 – Volume 10 – Issue 44