Handel Goes To School

By Karen Diegmueller — June 07, 1995 8 min read

Strains from Handel’s Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 5) drift across the dimly lighted auditorium. To the untrained ear, the music sounds rich and melodic; the instructors think otherwise.

“Stop here,” barks Sachiho Murasugi.

“Guys, we want to have long, long, long, short, short, short,” says Jeffrey Schoyen, demonstrating the sounds on his cello. He turns to Murasugi. “Is there something else?” he asks.

“They started playing some funny notes in there,” Murasugi says to her partner. Then, to the students: “Remember, your concert is coming up.”

The dozen Mount Vernon High School students assembled on stage play in fits and starts as their instructors listen, halt the music, demonstrate, and explain what the piece should sound like.

Murasugi interrupts them again. “This is in the style of a French overture,” she says. “Does anyone here know what a French overture is?”

When she gets no comers, Murasugi launches into a short discourse, explaining, in part, that such pieces traditionally accompanied the entrance of the king. “Try to have a pompous air about it,” she concludes.

The students seem to take the lesson to heart, and on the last play through of the piece, at the end of the 45-minute class, it all seems to gel.

Throughout the school year, Murasugi, who plays violin, and Schoyen have helped bring beautiful classical music to rural northeastern Iowa.

Better known as Il Dolcimelo, the string duo is part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Chamber Music Rural Residencies program, which dispatches small music ensembles into communities where live chamber music is a rarity.

In these small towns, the musicians live, perform, and teach in the schools and neighboring community colleges or universities from one to three years.

In some schools, their work blends with the curriculum. In others, their gig is to perform for students.

“Our most important role is not to teach them something specific, but to get them excited about music in general,” says Stephen Boe, the violinist with the Emile Beaux Jeux Trio, which is based up the road a piece in Jesup, Iowa.

Influencing the Curriculum

Rural communities in Iowa, Kansas, and Georgia were the first to participate in the residencies program when it made its debut in 1992. Since then, ensembles have taken up residence in Arkansas and California. Next school year, the program will spread to Kentucky, Maine, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

The national endowment picks up two-thirds of the tab, and the sponsoring communities shoulder the remaining costs, including housing for the musicians. The total 1994-95 budget is $467,500.

But the musicians are not attracted to the program for the $1,000 stipends each person receives monthly. Rather, it gives them a chance to perform and to polish and expand their repertoire.

Four ensembles have maintained residencies in northeastern Iowa since 1992.

They’ve moved from small town to small town. And even though they are based in one place, they work and perform all around the region.

“In some communities, they are totally in love with it,” says Renata Sack, the executive director of the Cedar Arts Forum, the coordinating agency for the program in Iowa. “In some, they got kind of jaded.”

All the public schools involved in the residency program in Iowa have some music program--from an extensive one at Cedar Falls to band and choir at Jesup. In other areas, though, no music program existed before the chamber groups came to town.

This is the first year of residency for Il Dolcimelo, which specializes in music of the baroque period.

Murasugi and Schoyen work with the string students at Mount Vernon High School three days a week and with elementary students two days a week.

Their presence in the schools has “meant that we’ve been able to do some extra things,” says Janet Ault, who directs the elementary and high school orchestras at the schools.

During the spring semester, for instance, Ault divided the orchestra into three sections, with each musician working with the individual groups. “We can take the stronger players out and make much more progress with the weaker players,” she says.

The duo’s presence has also influenced the curriculum. “I have molded the curriculum because of their speciality in baroque music,” Ault says.

A lot of what the children learn, though, has little or nothing to do with music.

One of the students asked Il Dolcimelo how their parents felt about them living away from home. “I think it opened his mind to the fact that maybe there are some choices for him down the road,” says Schoyen.

Asking Questions

“When you play, how come you move your head around?”

“Where do you get all those songs?”

“How old are your instruments?”

“Can you try playing any rock ‘n’ roll?”

The 1st graders at Jesup Elementary School gush with questions for the Emile Beaux Jeux Trio.

This is the second year of residence for the trio, although its members spent last year about 30 miles northeast in Fayette where the group’s primary sponsor, Upper Iowa University, is located.

This year, the trio’s home base and sponsor is Jesup, a community of about 2,100 surrounded by soybean and corn fields and pig farms.

The existence here of first-class classical musicians seems as incongruous as the grand piano, courtesy of Baldwin, that sits in the living room of the modest one-bathroom house the community has provided for the trio.

The 1st graders are seated in semicircles on the graduated steps of the band room in the high school wing of the district’s single public school.

Try as they might to follow pianist Joo Kim’s instructions for listening--clasped hands, feet together, lips zipped--some can’t help but to wiggle and fidget.

Between Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical movements, Boe offers simple narrative and teases answers to such questions as, “Do you remember the fancy name for short notes?”

When no answer is forthcoming, he hints, “It’s an Italian word.”

“Spaghetti,” the chorus chimes.

But when he asks what ‘piano’ means in music, lots of hands shoot up. “Quiet,” the children correctly respond.

During the next period, the more sophisticated 3rd graders request “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

To get the students to appreciate music, “you have to incorporate everything,” Boe says.

One Tough Crowd

At the trio’s next stop, the Prairie Grove School, one of three Amish schools in the district, the students provide a perfect contrast to the public school children.

Before the trio even arrives, the desks have been pushed to the side of the room, and 28 students from kindergarten to 8th grade sit quietly in neatly aligned rows.

As the trio plays, a tractor lumbers by outside the bank of windows into which sunlight is streaming.

There is little evidence of swaying bodies or tapping feet here in this simple but colorfully decorated schoolhouse, but the students in the back rows strain their heads to get a better view. And polite applause joins with joyous smiles.

It’s a tough crowd from which to extract questions, though. Finally, one of the students asks cellist Emilio Col¢n if he got married as he had planned.

Giggles abound, but the blushing Col¢n tells them yes, he was married a few weeks ago. His wife, a music librarian, lives in Bloomington, Ind. Such compromises are one of the drawbacks of the program for the musicians.

At Sack’s request, the Amish students sing “Oh, God, Our Father” and “Jesus Loves Me” in German for their visitors.

“We really enjoyed you,” says teacher Carolyn Gill. “We wish you could come more often and play longer.”

Expanding the Possibilities

“Don’t bang that last E. That last E should be a warm note,” Boe tells Rachel Coltvet, a sophomore at Cedar Falls High School.

After performing for the orchestra at 8:30 A.M., an absurd hour for musicians, the Emile Beaux Jeux Trio holds a master session during the next period.

Coltvet stands in front of Boe and listens intently to his critique of her play. She grimaces when she can’t make the violin do what Boe has shown her. But when the violin sings sweetly, a smile sweeps across the face of the T-shirt-clad young woman.

Afterward, Coltvet says she values the chance to work with the musician. “He went over the whole piece and gave me techniques of how to get a better sound,” she says.

Dennis Downs, the Cedar Falls High orchestra director, also appreciates the trio. “They certainly don’t get that level of play or modeling from me,” says Downs. “It really shows the kids the possibilities.”

“I don’t know how long they’ll remember history, chapter 12,” Downs continues, “but they’ll remember what we saw today for a long time.”

Planting the Seed

On a raw and rainy spring evening, a dozen friends gather at the home of Connie and Merritt Jones in Jesup.

Before the guests arrive, Boe suggests to his host and hostess that the trio keep its performance fairly short. They don’t know how folks will take to this salon performance and fear too long a concert may bore their listeners.

In the end, the audience demands an encore.

But there will be no more encores for the rural communities in Iowa, Georgia, or Kansas because this is the last year of eligibility for the three states.

For that matter, next year could be the last for the rural chamber-music residencies period if Congress decides to cut the budget or kill the National Endowment for the Arts. Republicans in the House and Senate have proposed both.

“In the best of all possible worlds, there would be enough money for communities in the program to continue in it,” says Eva Jacob, the director of the program for the endowment. “This is just not possible, which is why it’s a seeding program and we need to move on. The purpose of the program is to have long-term impact.”

Jacob points to a legacy that includes a new string program in Georgia, the formation of amateur ensembles in many of the communities, the hiring of a jazz musician for the faculty of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and two flourishing jazz bands at the high school there.

Then there are the intangibles.

Even though Sarah and Emily Schneider play several instruments, they hadn’t had much exposure to classical music until the Ying Quartet took up residence in Jesup two years ago.

Emily, a junior at Jesup High School, took up the cello, and Sarah, a senior, took up the violin, and the sisters took lessons from quartet members.

“We learned something about big-city life, and I think they learned something about small-town life,” says Emily.

Adds Sarah: “I find myself listening to more classical music.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1995 edition of Education Week as Handel Goes To School