Anyone strolling past a school playground roundabout lunchtime is quite familiar with the great debates that permeate early school life:
• “Let’s play freeze tag!” “No – let’s play regular tag!” “No – let’s play TV tag!”
• “No way am I gonna agree to that trade! I’ll offer my Pikachu for your Charmander...”
• “Yeah, well Debussy could kick Schubert’s butt even if he was standing on Bach’s shoulders!”
While variant strains of tag and the relative values of Pokemon cards could be the subject of a panel discussion at most any school, the classical music conundrum would probably be limited to just one – Berkeley’s own Crowden School.
Now a thriving city institution, The Crowden School’s makeshift origins and subsequent ascent mirror a garage band-turned-supergroup. Founded back in 1983 by Scottish-born violinist Anne Crowden, the school was initially run out of a church basement and featured only 11 students in its debut class.
“We’re a unique environment, no other middle school in the country offers this blend of intense musical education and academics,” says school associate director Benjamin Simon, Crowden’s handpicked successor to take up the reins following this academic year. “Music is very challenging and entertaining, particularly to young children. So they really are given an opportunity to explore doing something difficult and challenging, mastering a series of tasks, and watching their older peers do more difficult music and pieces that sort of lead them through.”
Crowden and academic director Piero Mancini – who, intrigued by Crowden’s quest to start a musical school, moved his family from Italy to Berkeley – have watched their school grow from 11 students in grades six and seven to roughly 70 in grades four through nine. Two years ago, the school ascended from its longtime home in the basement of the University Christian Church to move into its current location, the old Jefferson School building on Rose Street.
And while chamber music remains the crux of the institution, the students run the full gamut of academics from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. – following, of course, the 8-to-10 a.m. session under the watchful eye of Crowden, Simon (a violist) and a slew of other Bay Area musicians.
“The aim is not to be a conservatory,” says Crowden, who was trained in her native Scotland and at London’s Royal Academy of Music before touring extensively in Europe and eventually immigrating to the United States in 1965. “It’s a wonderful background for the very talented students who do want to go on (to professional playing). For others, the love of music will be a lifelong hobby. The whole give and take of playing music together is a lesson they don’t learn any other field except perhaps on a very good sports team.
“But then they’re not using this so much!” laughs Crowden while pointing at her head.
Crowden’s analogy of team camaraderie is not ill-fitting. Many of the instructors and administrators are musicians themselves, and musical love and skill is a mutual bond for all the students.
“At this school you have something in common with everyone,” says Karla Donehew, a ninth-grade violinist in her fourth year at The Crowden School. “You get a lot of different views from everyone, and you pick which one you’d like to take. In music, there’s not only one right way to do things. Getting all the different ideas from different teachers is really good.”
And while The Crowden School has offered tomorrow’s musicians – and music lovers – a place to learn and grow, it is also more than just a small private institution. The school additionally runs the Crowden Community Music Center, reaching out to hundreds of Berkeley children (and possibly in the future, adults).
“We’re helping make musical education available to the community,” says Michael Dalby, chair of the school’s board. “There are roughly 350 children who partake in the CCMC’s ensembles, beginning instruction, chorus, musical theater, guitar and woodwind (programs). That’s as much a part of our vision as running the day school during school hours.”
In addition to the CCMC, The Crowden School also puts on numerous concerts, and sponsors many others (the classical-fusion Turtle Island String Quartet plays at St. John’s Church at 8 p.m. Saturday in a school-sponsored concert, and Crowden’s big spring show is on the 17th, also at St. John’s).
The precision the young musicians demonstrate during their many concerts is something of a contrast to the frenzied everyday atmosphere greeting Benjamin Simon when he first walked through the school’s front door two years back.
“There was chaos, controlled chaos, creative chaos,” says Simon, who has known Crowden since his early high school years. “Music was coming from under every door. Kids were running down the halls with works of art under one arm and instruments under the other.”
While Crowden plans to hand the school director’s baton to Simon after this year, she still plans to teach at the 8-to-10 a.m. sessions of the school she founded 17 years back.
“The thing that makes it all worthwhile is that it works,” says Crowden. “The children are happy and engaged; they support each other tremendously.”
The Crowden School, located at 1475 Rose St., is having its Spring Open House on Sunday. For more information about the school, visit the web site at www.thecrowdenschool.org