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Berkeley Symphony Makes Everyone a Performer

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 20, 2007

How many ways can a child experience an orchestra? Performing with it—as the “I am a Performer” concert at Washington Elementary School illustrated Friday morning—is one. 

Children from kindergarten to grade-five at Washington and Emerson schools performed alongside the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra as part of the symphony’s annual Music Education Program (MEP).  

Held every spring, the concert acts as the grand finale for the MEP which starts in the fall and takes Berkeley elementary school children through a musical journey for the next six months. 

“We’ve had it for 13 years now but it has evolved every day,” said Sarah Bullock, who has served as program director for the last two years. “We want to give every child the opportunity to perform in music. Every year four elementary schools are selected based on rotation. Our goal is to extend this opportunity to every elementary school in Berkeley annually.” 

This year, students from Cragmont, Emerson, Rosa Parks and Washington Elementary received hands-on training in instruments, met up with symphony performers, took part in school concerts and enjoyed free Berkeley Symphony performances with their parents. 

Bullock herself spent a great deal of time in the different classrooms, teaching kids new songs and compositions for the final performances. 

The brainchild of Oakland elementary school music teacher and former MEP director Randy Porter, the MEP was initiated by Kent Nagano and Kelly Johnson, then administrator at Berkeley Symphony. 

“I told them I wanted the kids to compose music that the symphony would perform and they agreed,” said Porter, in a telephone interview from West Lake Middle School, where he is band director. 

“I wanted to see how many different ways children could experience the orchestra,” he said. “They can listen to the orchestra, rehearse with the orchestra, write music for the orchestra and, most importantly, play with the orchestra. While brainstorming for the education program back in 1993, we tried to create something that would include all of this, and MEP was born.” 

A decade later, the success of the program won it the Bank of America Award for excellence in music education. 

“It’s great motivation for the kids,” said Charles Hamilton, instructor of the Berkeley High Jazz program. Hamilton was getting the fifth-graders from Emerson ready for a traditional piece named “La Sorella” on Friday. “Playing with professionals will encourage a lot of kids to pursue music in the long run.” 

Around 30 musicians from the symphony took part in the program, some making classroom visits to expose students to classical music for the first time. 

“Imagine the excitement of the younger students when they are introduced to a harp that’s twice their size. It’s a lot of fun watching them perform,” said Bullock. 

Debbie Spangler, who plays the violin in the symphony, said the enthusiasm of the children was addictive. 

“Musicians often don’t like getting up early because they practice late at night. So this gives us an excuse to wake up in the morning. It acts like a shot of caffeine,” she said smiling. “This is the best time to expose them to classical music. Once they go into a concert hall as young children, they will never be afraid to do it again. Many turn away because of peer pressure, but they can relate to it at some point again.” 

The first encounters with the symphony orchestra and in-house concerts are followed by the final concert—which has music as varied as the “William Tell Overture” (homemade percussion ensemble performed by grades one and two) and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (string performance by grade four). 

“There is immense pride in getting the notes right in front of parents and teachers,” said Kathleen Henschel, president of the Berkeley Symphony. “The program is very well received by the school district and is getting stronger by the day. We are currently working with the Berkeley Unified School District to expand the program. Our focus, however, will remain on Berkeley right now.” 

Henschel said that the program had an annual expense of $100,000, most of which was met with grants from foundations and individuals. 


Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee, 

Berkeley Symphony Orchestra musicians Emmanuela Nikiforova (left) and Ward Spangler (center) show Emerson Elementary first graders how to play the cymbals at the “I Am a Performer” concert Friday.