They say that “mighty oaks from little acorns grow.”
And if you want to glimpse the origins of the Davis school district’s large and highly regarded string music program — which attracts so many young musicians that Davis High School supports not only a full-sized symphony orchestra, but also a chamber orchestra and a Baroque ensemble as well — then you need to visit the elementary schools.
At each elementary campus, every fall, the bright-eyed fourth-graders are ushered into their school’s multipurpose room for a string assembly, at which they are introduced to the violin, viola, cello and bass.
At Birch Lane Elementary on Tuesday afternoon, with music teachers Sherie Wall and Kim Cole enticing the youngsters by demonstrating just how high (and low) each instrument can go. Wall and Cole plucked the strings, and then they picked up a bow, explaining that many of today’s bows are made from carbon fiber (rather than the traditional pernambuco wood from Brazilian rain forests), but they are still strung with a hank of horse hair.
Cole and Wall played tunes like “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Danny Boy.” They played brief, glimmering glissandi, earning “oohs” and “ahhs” from the fourth-graders sitting on the floor.
And many of the students seemed well prepared. As Wall put away her violin, and took her viola out of the case as she prepared to demonstrate, there were murmurs among the fourth-graders: “a viola … it’s a viola …” And when Cole got out the next member of the string family, the students murmured “it’s a cello.”
Wall — who’s been doing these elementary string assemblies for some years — saved a special pitch for the viola.
“It’s got a sound that reminds me of rich, warm, dark chocolate,” she said, eliciting more “oohs” and “ahhs” from the students.
And then Wall leveled with the kids. “These instruments look easy … but they are not. It takes work to learn to play them. If you really want to be good, you’ve got to practice, at least a little bit, every day.”
A curious student asked “Which is the most popular instrument? The best instrument?”
Wall quickly replied, without hesitation, “The one you like the sound of the best.”
These fourth-grade string assemblies — which were held at each of the elementary schools in the Davis district during the past week or two — are the quiet beginnings of a string program that many students will stay with through high school graduation, and in some cases throughout their adult lives.
Angelo Moreno, who conducts orchestras at Davis High and Holmes Junior High, is well aware that the prize-winning ensembles in the upper grades depend on young string students developing basic skills while in the elementary schools.
“Each year, we continue to see the numbers of elementary strings students grow. In turn, the student enrollments at the junior highs and high school are steadily growing,” Moreno said.
“Parents are seeing the positive impact the music program is having in the lives of their students, while the kids just know they are having a lot fun while making social connections and learning new things.
“The hope is that the majority of these younger students will continue through the strings program and join the ranks of one of the best orchestra programs in the state of California once they get to the secondary level. Groups like the Davis High School Symphony Orchestra, which was named ‘Best Classical Ensemble in the Nation at the High School Level’ in a nationwide search by Down Beat Magazine this past spring, serve as a goal for these young students to strive toward.”
Hiram Jackson, a past president of the Davis Schools Orchestral Music Association, said, “I’ve had two kids graduate from high school in Davis, and both were in the school orchestra program. They participated in the elementary music program — the elementary school environment generally seems to feel comforting and secure to most students. But when students transition to junior high, then it can feel unsettling and maybe overwhelming, and students start to behave even more independently.
“Music classes, whether it’s band, orchestra or choir, offer a stable social environment during the school day. It means that those students are likelier to take an interest in school, are likelier to feel better about themselves, and are less likely to visit the vice principal’s office for discipline issues. Plus I think that they enjoy participating in a program that is so highly regarded both within and outside of Davis.”
Jackson added that “Last spring, Davis High School was awarded a Grammy Signature Schools Award, one of only a few nationwide to receive such recognition. Although it was the high school program that was recognized, it really reflects very positively on the whole district program.”
And Jackson is starting as a “string dad” once again this fall. “My youngest child just entered fourth grade. We are really lucky to still have this program available in the Davis schools. So many other school districts have eliminated their elementary music program because of budget concerns.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8055.