Musical Missionaries

Ensembles of classical performers bring their art to rural schools

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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, but the instructors think otherwise.

“Stop here,” barks Sachiho Murasugi, one of the teachers. “Guys, we want to have long, long, long, short, short, short,” says Jeffrey Schoyen, the other. He demonstrates on his cello and then turns to Murasugi. “Is there something else?”

“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 onstage play on in fits and starts as their instructors listen, halt the music, explain, and demonstrate. “This is in the style of a French overture,” Murasugi says after another interruption. “Does anyone here know what a French overture is?” When no one answers, she launches into a short discourse, explaining, among other things, that such pieces traditionally accompanied the entrance of the king. “Try to have a pompous air about it,” she says.

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

Violinist Murasugi and cellist Schoyen are, in some ways, musical missionaries. 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 ensembles to communities where live chamber music is a rarity. For the 1994-95 school year, Murasugi and Schoyen have been posted to the eastern Iowa community of Mount Vernon, not far from Cedar Rapids.

Musicians participating in the residency program agree to live in such rural communities for one to three years, teaching and performing in schools, colleges, and even homes. In some schools, they teach. In others, they simply perform. “Our most important role is not to teach them something specific but to get them excited about music in general,” says Stephen Boe, violinist with the Emile Beaux Jeux Trio, which is based in Jessup, about an hour north of Mount Vernon.

Rural communities in Iowa, Kansas, and Georgia were the first to participate in the residency program when it made its debut in 1992. Since then, ensembles have taken up residence in Arkansas and California. Beginning this fall, the program will move to Kentucky, Maine, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The endowment picks up two-thirds of the tab, and the sponsoring communities shoulder the remaining costs, including housing for the musicians. The total budget for this school year (1994-95) is $467,500.

One thing is certain: The musicians aren’t attracted to the program for the money; they receive a stipend of only $1,000 a month. Most are drawn by the opportunity to perform, polish, and expand their repertoire. And, of course, to teach. All the public schools involved in the Iowa residencies had some formal music program before the chamber groups came to town. But in some participating schools in other states, no program existed.

This has been 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 has “meant that we’ve been able to do some extra things,” says Janet Ault, director of the district’s elementary and high school orchestras. “We can take the stronger players out and make much more progress with the weaker players.”

Ault says she also decided to adjust the focus of her program somewhat to take advantage of the duo’s particular strength. “I have molded the curriculum because of their speciality in baroque music,” she says.

This is the second year of residence for the Emile Beaux Jeux Trio. The group spent the 1993-94 school year in Fayette, where the group’s primary sponsor, Upper Iowa University, is located. But this year, the trio’s home base is Jessup, a community of about 2,100 surrounded by soybean and corn fields and pig farms.

On this spring day, Jessup 1st graders sit in semicircles on the graduated steps of the band room in the district’s single public school. Try as they might to follow pianist Joo Kim’s instructions for listening—hands clasped, feet together, lips zipped—some can’t help but fidget as the trio performs.

Between snippets by Beethoven, Mozart, and other classical composers, violinist Stephen Boe offers simple narrative and asks questions. “Do you remember the fancy name for short notes?” When no answer is forthcoming, he hints, “It’s an Italian word.”

“Spaghetti,” the children chime.

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

During the next period, the trio takes requests from the more sophisticated 3rd graders. The children ask for some old favorites: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” To get the students to appreciate music, Boe says later, “you have to incorporate everything.”

The trio’s next stop today is the Prairie Grove School, one of three Amish schools in the district. The students there provide a perfect contrast to the public school children. Desks have been pushed to the side of the room, and the 28 students—from kindergarten through 8th grade—sit quietly in neat rows. As the musicians play, a tractor lumbers by outside. The youngsters don’t sway or tap their feet to the music, but those in the back rows strain to get a better view.

Polite applause and smiles follow the performance, but when the trio asks for questions, silence falls on the room. Finally, one bold student asks cellist Emilio Colon if he ever got married as planned. Giggles abound as the blushing Colon tells the students that yes, he was married a few weeks before. His wife, a music librarian, lives in Bloomington, Ind.

The students then sing “Oh, God, Our Father” and “Jesus Loves Me” in German for their visitors. “We really enjoyed you,” teacher Carolyn Gill tells the musicians. “We wish you could come more often and play longer.”

Unfortunately, she will not get her wish. The chamber music residencies are coming to an end in Iowa, Georgia, and Kansas. Those states have had their turn; with the beginning of the new school year, the program will move to others. But the 1995-96 school year could be the last for rural residencies everywhere. Republican leaders in Congress have threatened to dramatically cut or kill the National Endowment for the Arts.

The next day, after an early morning performance for the Cedar Falls High School orchestra, the members of the trio hold “master sessions” with small groups of the students.

“Don’t bang that last E,” Boe tells Cedar Falls violinist Rachel Coltvet during one session. “That last E should be a warm note.” Rachel, a sophomore, stands in front of Boe, listening intently to his critique. She grimaces when she can’t make her violin do what Boe wants. But when she tries again, her violin sings sweetly, and a smile sweeps across her face.

“Students certainly don’t get that level of play or modeling from me,” concedes Dennis Downs, orchestra director at Cedar Falls. “It really shows the kids the possibilities. I don’t know how long they’ll remember history chapter 12, but they’ll remember what we saw today for a long time.”

Vol. 07, Issue 01, Pages 12-13

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