Music News & Reviews

Fourth-grade orchestra students start on a high note

Elementary school orchestra programs would be negatively affected by Fayette County Public Schools proposed budget, board member Amanda Ferguson said. She voted against the measure.
Elementary school orchestra programs would be negatively affected by Fayette County Public Schools proposed budget, board member Amanda Ferguson said. She voted against the measure.

Rebecca Goff moves along the row of fourth-grade musicians at Rosa Parks Elementary School, picking up violin after violin and lightly adjusting the strings, so that plucking them goes from cringe-inducing to smile-producing.

Taking on the challenge of being the only teacher in a room of nearly two dozen young violin, viola and cello players, she keeps a little chatter going. She talks about how it should feel to hold a violin or viola (it might hurt a little, but they'll get used to it), and the biggest hazard for a student's instrument at home (Dad, because dads like to "fix" things). Underscoring all of this is a steady "plink, plink, plink," like a field of crickets at dusk, as the kids are compelled to make noise with their newly issued instruments.

But what they're really there to do is make music, which will happen quickly.

Goff and her students are engaged in an annual rite of autumn for fourth-graders in Fayette County Public Schools who want to try orchestra. Most are touching a string instrument for the first time, although some have tried guitar or piano.

"I love sounds, and I've seen a show where they show how they make violins, so that's why I picked the violin," says Elliott Kraus. He says he feels "very grown up" playing the instrument.

"My mom wanted me to try it because she said she never had a chance to be in orchestra when she was in school and she at least wanted me to try it," Thomas Field says. "She went to school in Indiana."

Goff chimed in, "A lot of schools in Indiana don't have programs like this."

In fact, outside of Fayette and Jefferson counties, elementary school string programs are not a given.

"Fayette County automatically provides orchestra teachers and band teachers for every school so that when schools are staffing, they don't even have to think about it," says Nancy Campbell, who directs the string and orchestra programs for Fayette County Public Schools and leads the orchestra at Picadome Elementary School.

(In Lexington, orchestra starts in fourth grade, and band, which comprises wind and percussion instruments, starts in fifth grade.)

Campbell says a big factor in successful high school orchestra programs is developing strong feeder programs at the elementary level. Those programs can give the students experience so they can be strong contributors as they get older. The Lexington school district, she says, is a great size to have a coordinated program because it is large enough to support the program but small enough to allow teachers to coordinate.

Before the students pick up their i nstruments, Goff and Campbell teach them proper ways to handle instruments by using a familiar gesture to schoolkids: shaping the thumb and the index and middle fingers of the right hand to make the letter "L" held up to the forehead. Campbell tells her Picadome students it means "learner."

Either way, it is the proper shape of the hand for playing pizzicato, or plucked strings, and one of numerous holds and positions the teachers emphasize as the students handle their instruments.

"You don't want them learning bad habits early," says Campbell, who spends a lot of time checking her players' body positions: making sure their feet are flat on the floor and that they're holding the necks of their instruments at the right level.

The teachers want the students to make sounds, even if they don't sound exactly like Yo-Yo Ma.

Goff says parents wouldn't dream of not letting a child talk until the sentences were correct. "When I started out, I discovered the kids would get frustrated because they so want to make a noise, so I let them make some ugly noises, and I think that's OK."

The ultimate goal, though, is to have the students ready for a concert in December, when they will play basic tunes, some pizzicato and some with a bow.

The process starts with a song.

When everything is tuned and ready to go, Goff slowly leads the students through a few notes: D's and A's that build into the familiar melody of The Snake Charmer song. Some eyes widen as the students realize they're playing a tune they know, and there is a gasp when Goff tells them, "You played your first song!"

"I was really proud, because it was only the first day," violinist Courtney Kahle says. "I didn't expect we'd play a song on the first day."

Goff said the first song usually draws big reactions, including one student who declared, "I'm a professional!"

Well, not yet. But every professional was once somewhere close to where these students are.

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