Column: Fourth-grade orchestra growing at Prairie ElementaryWORTHINGTON — From a surprising spike of more than 60 students last year, the current 2011-2012 Prairie Elementary orchestra program has increased to more than 70 young musicians participating in the fourth grade alone.
By: Katie Stafford, District 518, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — From a surprising spike of more than 60 students last year, the current 2011-2012 Prairie Elementary orchestra program has increased to more than 70 young musicians participating in the fourth grade alone. At their Dec. 14 debut concerts, 46 violins, 12 violas, 11 cellos and one string bass joined together and filled the gymnasium of Prairie Elementary with their holiday music.
The numbers have increased so dramatically in recent years that Prairie Parent Group funds have been used to purchase school instruments, a new rental company has partnered with the school to equip eager students, and lesson and ensemble schedules have been adjusted and readjusted to accommodate every student who has the desire to learn a string instrument.
The benefits of learning to play a musical instrument on child development have been well researched and documented. Scientists say children who play an instrument do better in school than those who don’t, and there is strong evidence to show that music lessons help children improve their math, reading and language skills. It fosters the development of creative expression, discipline, concentration, time management, organizational and team skills, social communication and a strong work ethic. Music even relieves stress. But of course the students will just tell you that playing music is FUN!
One component of music education that is so powerfully evident in the Prairie orchestra is its ability to serve as a bridge. Students for whom speaking English is a challenge can find an avenue for expression and self-confidence through their instrument. Academically challenged students may find a fresh way to thrive and excel outside of the normal classroom setting. Special education students can discover a source of joy and success in a musical ensemble. Every day, students from all different backgrounds come together at Prairie to learn the same skills and make music together in the orchestra setting. I have seen heartwarming, breakthrough moments take place in students’ lives because of their involvement in the shared experience of making music, the universal language.
To begin the orchestra experience, incoming fourth-graders have the opportunity to participate in the Summer Strings program. These students come for daily small-group instruction and then stay together for the rest of the year, while students who are unable to play in the summer start shortly after the start of school in the fall. After learning the basics, students come together to perform the December concerts for parents and the students of Prairie Elementary. The orchestra year ends in the All-School Orchestra Concert in May, when all fourth- through 12th-grade orchestra students perform at the high school, culminating in a finale piece performed by all grade levels combined.
A typical week for a fourth-grade orchestra student includes a small-group lesson with like instruments and a large-group rehearsal in a full orchestra setting. In this way, students benefit from receiving instrument-specific instruction with a small teacher-student ratio as well as the experience of making music as part of a large ensemble. Students always arrive excited for large group rehearsals, eager to bring the skills they have been learning separately in their small groups and hear how their contribution enhances the larger ensemble.
Orchestra is especially exciting as the students arrive at a highly anticipated benchmark in their study: using their bows for the first time. It requires a great deal of patience and diligence on the part of the young musicians to master the basics of plucking exercises and songs on the strings of their instruments (called pizzicato) before at last learning the techniques necessary to produce sound with the bows. It is well worth the wait, however; there is nothing like seeing students’ eyes light up as they pull the bow across the strings for the first time!
After the Prairie Elementary orchestra experience, students move on to the thriving middle and high school orchestra programs, under the direction of Melanie Loy. Band instruction starts in fifth grade, and many students participate in both orchestra and band throughout high school. Whether they continue the study of music or not, the main hope for every student upon completion of participation in the fourth-grade orchestra is that they move on having developed lasting skills, understanding how far hard work, dedication and personal responsibility can take them. Ultimately, the hope is that the experience has ignited a spark inside each student for a lifelong love of music!