Not every little leaguer gets the chance to hop the fence of his favorite team’s home field, take a couple of hacks off Randy Johnson or shag flies alongside Barry Bonds.
Not every aspiring paleontologist gets the opportunity to dig up dinosaurs in the field, and chat about punctuated equilibrium over lunch with Stephen Jay Gould.
And not every young musician gets the chance to sit in with the city’s symphony orchestra and blast out a trumpet solo – but some do, here in Berkeley.
The expression “only in Berkeley” is usually uttered in response to protests, politically correct ordinances and the exhibitionism of the X-Plicit Players, but it is equally applicable in describing the city symphony’s work within Berkeley’s elementary schools.
“As a youngster, I went to concerts for kids in the Paramount Theater. I remember getting on buses, getting in a really long line, a long ramp and how big the Paramount Theater was. But that’s all I remember,” recalls Randy Porter, founder of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra Music Education Program. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t just do something really big for lots of kids. When you’re dealing with smaller people, the intimacy is really important to them being able to have a meaningful experience.”
So Porter, an Oakland music teacher now in his seventh year as the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra’s education director, created a unique program in 1993 in which the orchestra doesn’t just play to the kids, but with them.
“The Berkeley Sound,” a collaborative concert with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and the elementary school kids is the culmination of a six-odd week music program within the schools. The program runs in four city schools a year, two at a time. Both Oxford and Washington schools knocked off their collaborative concerts Thursday morning, bathed in the multicolored sunlight beneath the rose window of St. John’s Presbyterian Church.
“The experience of making music is not limited to those who consider themselves musicians. Today, everyone’s a musician,” said orchestra conductor George Thomson following the Thursday morning concerts. “Part of getting people used to the experience of making music is to show them that it’s cool to do it.”
Showing the kids music’s inherent coolness is not a rapid process. Following an initial, interest-piquing concert by the orchestra, the kids – including special education or hearing impaired students – grill Thomson and the orchestra musicians in “Q and A” sessions, write poetry and set it to music (using the five black keys on the piano to “write simple, pentatonic melodies,” as Porter puts it) and craft some of the many homemade instruments in Porter’s handbook leading up to the big collaborative concert.
“One is a film canister with a balloon stretched over it half-filled with rice,” says Porter of one of the eight kid-crafted instruments in his guidebook. “You can shake it, or pluck it – and it’s very loud, actually. You can blow across it and get a really squeally sound. Or you can put two film canisters together and get an ocarina, a kind of circular, clay flute. Or you can cut a straw’s tip and blow into it like an oboe. Sometimes teachers take their own leads and let the kids invent their own instruments. Those can be extremely wacky.”
And while the kids seem enthused to work with the professional musicians, it certainly seems that the adults are getting a blast out of working the children as well. At Thursday’s concerts, orchestra members often smiled proudly at their little proteges, and generally seemed to be having a splendid time of it.
“The kids were very well prepared and well behaved. I really had fun and the program was great,” said orchestra violinist Eugene Chukholov following the Oxford School concert. “My father, who is a music professor, always said playing for kids is the biggest responsibility for the professional. They’re the most honest. They’ll obviously react positively to something that’s good.
“(Wednesday’s) rehearsal was just wonderful,” continues Chukholov. “For a musician, to get to a rehearsal at 7 a.m. is torture, because you’re playing until 2 the night before. But the teachers were really involved and the students were very involved and the rehearsal was just a treat.”
Chukholov et al accompanied the students in a program that, at the very least, could be described as extraordinarily eclectic. The orchestra backed the young musicians and singers in such tunes as “Twinkle, Twinkle,” Haydn’s “Surprise Symphony,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and the old Woodie Guthrie number “Goin’ Down the Old Dusty Road” (with special guest Country Joe McDonald). The concert was recorded for posterity from hundreds of angles by hundreds of proud parents wielding hundreds of camcorders.
“I want the kids to understand that ‘I could do that,’ that this is where all those people in the orchestra started when they were kids,” says Porter of his goals for the program. “Most orchestra musicians start in school music programs like what’s in place at Berkeley Unified. I want the kids to think that if this is something they love and could be passionate about they could do this if they wanted.”