Future of Music in the Schools in jeopardy

DOWNEY - Each spring for the past 15 years, musicians from our symphony orchestra have visited Downey's elementary schools, every one of them, in programs designed to touch young minds with the power of knowledge and music.This year the emphasis is on Style in Music, the performance ranging from a Classical period minuet, through the 20th century, and on into contemporary styles such as mariachi and Dixieland. All kids in Downey Unified's 14 elementary schools, and in four private schools, hear these musicians in a different program every year. Mark Artusio, the orchestra's manager and principal bass, greets fourth and fifth graders seated wall-to-wall on the floor of the cafeteria at Carpenter School. "You remember me, Mark?" "GOOD MORNING, MARK!" "Do you like music?" he asks. A hundred eager hands wave in the air. "He makes you love the music," teacher Charlene Shimada says, and adds that as an assignment, she asks each student to memorize one of the rhythms that illustrates this year's presentation and bring it back to class for further discussion. At Spencer Williams School, everyone recognizes themes from Tom and Jerry cartoons, and now they learn that it is Romantic period dance music, a can-can. For the kindergartners, this is a new experience, seeing real people up close who show them a real violin, a real clarinet, and play for them. Trombonist Robert Coomber explains how you play this long shiny brass instrument ("with your face") and gives the kids the sound of a racing car roaring around the track. It's a crowd-pleaser. Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" swings to life with Patty Massey's clarinet. Behind an array of percussion instruments, Danielle Squyres taps out happy stuff on the xylophone, then sends chills, quietly brushing the cymbals, "like something terrible is behind a door." The kids' eyes are wide. "Oooooh." In mid-January the quintet played for Rio Hondo School, and soon after a flood of thank-you notes from the students arrived at the Symphony's office. (Teachers teaching good manners.) Second-grader Amber Jean wrote, "You are the best people ('pepol') I have ever seen. One day I want to go to your concert." We hope you will, Amber Jean. Andi said, "I want to be a grown up too...I love your music." When serious cuts in arts instruction were made in public school curricula, the Downey Symphony Board determined to take up some of the slack by creating this Music in the Schools program for Downey, to provide these yearly performances. Consistently, the response has been important and gratifying. But the quintet's appearance, giving two performances at each school to accommodate all the children, costs $1,000 per school. Multiply that by 18 schools, and you understand that the Symphony and Guild Boards must remain hard at work to generate sufficient funding for so valuable an outreach. Today, Music in the Schools is in peril, as critical financial support fades, competition for grants increases, and our community's belts tighten. It has happened all over the country; many orchestras have been forced to turn out the lights and fold. So far our Downey Symphony boards manage to stay afloat, offering a season of three fine concerts and a summer performance at Furman Park. Our fundraising events abound. But the threat of losing Music in the Schools inches closer, and Downey residents and PTAs and businesses and institutions must rally to save the program. For information, call (562) 928-4122. Here is another letter of thanks that came in from a second-grader: "My favorite was the violin [played by concertmaster Carolyn Osborn]. Thank you for coming to Rio Hondo. Are you going to come next year because if you do I will come. Please come next year. I love your music. I liked all your songs that you guys play for us. Love, Gemma." What a nice note, Gemma. Thank you, and we really hope to see you next year. Love to you and all your classmates, from the Downey Symphony.

********** Published: March 10, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 47