Symphony music: better than recess

DOWNEY – The cafeteria at Old River Elementary School waits quietly, floor polished, tables folded away for an event. Five adults at one end of the room adjust five music stands, carefully tune their instruments, loosen up fingers, mouths, cheeks, shoulders. Then doors open and the room bursts with color and energy that flows in with long streams of expectant kids. The audience has arrived!

These fourth grade students, sitting quickly on the floor, are excited and confident at the same time. They know these five performers who come to their school each year, bringing examples of the wonders of music.

“Good morning,” says the smiling string bass player. “You remember me – I’m Mark.”


And so begins another session, up close and personal, with principal players from the Downey Symphony, who present Music in the Schools performances at every elementary school in the Downey Unified District, every year since 1995.

The late Tom Osborn, for two decades music director of the Downey Symphony, created lessons that convey musical concepts: style, rhythm, meter, pitch, tempo, and today’s lesson on melody and accompaniment. He arranged orchestral works for just five instruments representing the sections of an orchestra, using violin, clarinet, trombone, percussion and the bass viol.

Students hear Mozart and Gershwin, Stravinsky and “Harry Potter.” They learn how each instrument is played and how it sounds.

Dave asks, “What do you think my trombone is made of?” Kids confer in whispers and finally one boy’s hand shoots up. “Gold!” (Well, almost!)

Danielle gives them a brilliant passage on the xylophone, sends chills with cymbals and a brush, then plays the rhythm that holds together every marching band in the country and asks who knows what kind of drum she is playing. A girl answers, “Snare drum!”

“Right!” says Danielle, then adds an impromptu insight: “A snare drum is not very good at playing melody.”

Mark: “Who wants to conduct us?” Two or three hands.

“You could boss us around.” This time lots of hands. A slender girl comes up to help the quintet demonstrate variations of tempo by raising and lowering both her arms. She’ll never forget that feeling of command.

The quintet gives two performances this morning at Old River, to accommodate the fourth grade classes. The kids’ faces beam, they listen carefully, one boy simply bounces with enthusiasm when he claps. But at the second program, Mark announces they will have to cut it short – “It’s time for recess. Do you want to go to recess?” he asks. The cafeteria erupts. “N-O!” a hundred voices shout.

If ever there was testimony to the power of music and learning, that was a shining moment.

For more information on Music in the Schools and the Downey Symphony, please visit our website, and bring your kids to hear the orchestra on Aug. 6 at Furman Park’s free summer park series to find out what is even better than recess!



Published: May 1, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 03