Third-graders get up close look at Downey’s symphony

DOWNEY – Halloween is upon us again as we reach the end of another October. Usually during this week of the year there is something strange, out of the ordinary, brewing over at the Downey Theatre. Well, this year it happened early and is all over now. The magical and mysterious annual occurrence went off again without so much as a teeny-weeny glitch. And it involved a musical witch! This event, the 3rd Graders Concerts held at the Downey Theatre on Thursday, October 9th, was presented as part of the Music in the Schools outreach program by the Downey Symphony Orchestra in cooperation with the Downey Unified School District and the City of Downey -  Theatre Staff.

In this day and age there is a need for more arts education. Unfortunately, it is the area where funding is cut first when budget conscious belt-tightening must take place. While studying the arts, students learn many valuable skills seen as important in academic and life success. The top ten skills children learn from the arts are creativity, confidence, problem solving, perseverance, focus, non-verbal communication, how to receive constructive feedback, collaboration, dedication, and accountability according to a recent article in the Washington Post. The Downey Symphonic Society created Music in the Schools as an outreach program in order to expose elementary school children to symphonic music and the relationship this music has within the arts and with the students themselves.

There is nothing quite like the magic in the air that fills the theatre when these 3rd Graders (and their teachers) hear a full symphonic orchestra that fills the stage, many of them for the first time. Back at school they may have seen the quintet, a group of five Downey Symphony Orchestra members, play for them at an assembly. But in the Downey Theatre we are talking about the “big time” and the great variety of sounds from the orchestra that waft out over the audience and ignite a magical feeling inside every listener sitting at attention, completely absorbed in the experience.

This exposure to the orchestra and the music being performed, in addition to some very important things the students are taught by Sharon Lavery, Music Director and Conductor of the Downey Symphonic Orchestra, ignites ideas within the students. Maybe, with a little work and a lot of practice, they could learn how to play a musical instrument, join a band or an orchestra, and perform in front of a lot of people.

The mystery is how the 3rd Graders Concerts happened and a few hours later you could not even tell. Really, it isn’t a mystery at all, so this wrter will tell you. First, the Downey Symphonic Society provided the Downey Symphony Orchestra, of course. Second, from the office of Janice Hobson, Director of Instructional Support Programs, the Downey Unified School District provided the well maintained buses to get the students and teachers to and from the theatre, the well thought-out plans as to which schools attended what performance (there were three performances) and at what time (9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., or 11:30 a.m.), and a well trained crew of School District Staff that helped facilitate the arrivals and departures of the buses and their riders. Third, the City of Downey provided the Downey Theatre and the theatre staff to have the event take place in.

The theatre staff had set out cones to define the bus parking along 2nd Street between the theatre and the library. At 9 a.m. the buses began arriving and off-loading the students and teachers. Once empty, the buses left to go get their new passengers, the audience for the next performance. Meanwhile, quickly and calmly the school district staff ushered the audience in to the theatre seating areas. Each school had just the right number of seats waiting for them, all grouped together, and at 9:27 AM everyone was ready to begin.

The house lights dimmed down slowly and finally went out. Everyone was very quiet now. Show time!

The stage lights changed and got much brighter. First out on stage came Carolyn Osborn; she is the Concert Master and got to “tune-up” the orchestra. Everyone on stage got in tune with each other; they were all ready to play music together. Next out on stage came Sharon Lavery; she is the Music Director and Conductor. The overall concept of the concert was to learn about the “themes” heard in the music being performed. In 45 minutes the audience got to hear four pieces of music. First was “A Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra” by Benjamin Britten. In this piece the instruments and the sections of the orchestra were first introduced separately and played a theme, one by one, then the entire orchestra played together at the end, passing the theme from section to section. This piece was narrated by Anthony Moreno, the guest baritone opera soloist who would beautifully perform works from Mozart’s operas at the first concert of the Downey Symphony Orchesrta’s season two days later.

The next piece was “Night On Bald Mountain” by Modeste Mussorgsky. At this point Sharon Lavery quickly put on a witch’s cape and hat and found her conducting broom. She successfully related the music of Mussorgsky to a story about several witches plotting to take over the city of Downey one Halloween night long ago. She explained the themes to be listened for and asked the students to show her that they recognized those themes by wiggling their fingers in front of their mouths when they heard the “witches gossiping” theme.

The students were instructed to place their hands over their hearts in honor when they heard the theme that represented the guards who would eventually save the city from the witches sinister plot. And finally, to hear and recognize the theme of the sun coming up on a bright new day after the all-night battle between the witches and the guards was over. This interaction between the stage and the audience was lively and fun. Sharon Lavery conducted the orchestra using her broomstick!

The concert also included Marche Slav by Peter I. Tchaikovsky and the Hogwarts theme from the “Harry Potter” films by John Williams.

After the concert the students filed out and reboarded their school buses. The buses had returned to the Downey Theatre with the next audience, third graders scheduled to see the 10:30 a.m. performances.

Between performances Sharon Lavery was overheard saying, “There were many noticeable moments when the students reacted to the themes they recognized! It makes me feel good to know they’re coming to see us already knowing about what we are going to perform; It shows me that the teachers are going over the preparatory materials in the classrooms!” She was going offstage to have a quick break with the orchestra, then it was back out onstage to do it all over again at 10:30 AM. And then again at 11:30 AM! Three morning performances to accommodate over 1600 Downey third graders.

And all of this made possible by the sponsorship of the Helen Hoag Foundation. The concerts could not have happened without her generosity. Thank you!

To find out more about the Downey Symphony Orchestra and “Music in the Schools” please go to

Mark Keller is a member of the Downey Symphony board of directors.



Published: Oct. 30, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 29