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Pacific Symphony musicians and 32 “class act” elementary schools learn and explore music through Vivaldi and the “Forces of Nature”
Orange County, Calif. — May 19, 2016
For more than two decades, Pacific Symphony has been bringing quality music education to elementary school children through the Frieda Belinfante Class Act program, a partnership between the Symphony, Orange County schools and parent volunteers. During the 2015-16 program, students have been learning about classical music through the study of Vivaldi and how composers portray the “forces of nature” through music using melody, tempo, tone color and other musical elements. The program began in October and culminates in late spring with Youth Concerts (eight free interactive performances presented each year by the full Symphony orchestra in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall) and Bravo assemblies, celebratory events where students demonstrate what they have learned. What makes Class Act unique are the Symphony musicians who take on the role of teaching artists, providing personal connections with their students.
“Class Act, which started 21 years ago, was one of Pacific Symphony’s very first partnership programs, drawing its strength not only from our musicians, but also from parent volunteers, classroom and music teachers, principals and district leadership,” says Susan Kotses, Symphony vice president of education and community engagement. “The program allows us to connect with our community in a unique and powerful way—creating memorable and impactful musical experiences shared between our youngest students and our musicians.”
This year, the Symphony reached approximately 17,000 students across 32 Class Act schools. Yearly activities include Prelude Assemblies for entire student bodies, hosted by a professional actor who introduces students to their musician and the year’s theme and composer. Classroom lessons follow, presented to each grade level and taught by Symphony musicians focusing on the year’s composer and theme, as well as providing details about the musician’s instrument and career. Family Night ensemble performances are then presented at each school by a Symphony quintet, led by the school’s musician and featuring his/her instrument.
“Our musicians have really enjoyed planning lessons around this year’s theme,” says Susan Thoren, director of education. “Many composers are inspired by forces of nature; Vivaldi painted powerful forces of nature in his concertos—thunderstorms, ice, snowstorms, swarms of hornets, etc., so this theme allowed us to explore the works of noteworthy composers, and at the same time educate our students about the evolution of symphonic music.”
The musicians tailor their lessons to match their individual musical interests and strengths and take creative approaches—from having students physically act out the first movement of spring in Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ to creating Venn diagrams that compare and contrast compositional elements used by different composers. This year’s teaching artists are Douglas Basye (bass), Michael Hoffman (trombone), Elliott Moreau (bassoon), Russell Dicey (French horn), Andrew Honea (cello), Cynthia Ellis (flute), Nancy Eldridge (violin), Ian McKinnell (cello), MarlaJoy Weisshaar (violin), Dana Freeman (violin) and Carolyn Riley (viola).
“Our musicians are incredible. They bring such a wealth of talent, knowledge and experience to our program,” says Thoren. “They understand the educational and developmental needs of the students and do an exceptional job of tailoring their content for each grade level. Working with kindergarteners is very different from working with 8th graders, but our musicians meet the needs of each class and present lessons that are exciting and engaging.”
Musical concepts learned during the year come together during the Youth Concerts, designed for students in grades two and higher. Youth Concerts allow students to see and hear the musician they’ve been working with all year perform within an orchestra and also tie all of the featured composers together. Students gain a greater understanding of what makes these pieces similar and different, while discussing the different periods of music history and how the orchestra has evolved over time.
With two concerts a day taking place on June-1-3 and 6, at 10 a.m. and 11:15 a.m., roughly 1,800 students attend each concert, bringing the total number of students to 13,000 over the four days. With that many children in attendance, 80-100 volunteers are needed each day. This year, 29 of the Class Act schools will be in attendance at the Youth Concerts, with three to five Class Act schools attending per day.
This year’s concerts, which include student participation led by Assistant Conductor Roger Kalia (who also plays a role in the story), feature Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra students Phil Chen and Danielle Liu performing excerpts from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Other pieces played by the orchestra include Handel’s “Water Music,” Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music,” Britten’s “Storm,” J. Strauss’s “Thunder and Lightning Polka,” Beethoven’s “Storm” from Symphony No. 6 and the “Flying Theme” from E.T. by John Williams. The program also includes actors: Nick Preston as a Venetian gondolier named Giuseppe; Joe Lauderdale as Antonio Vivaldi and Kathi Gillmore as a film director named Nora. Additionally, during the concert, images from Gregory MacGillivray’s films and student’s artwork (inspired by Britten’s “Storm”) will be shown on screen above the stage.
“Youth Concerts are an opportunity for the Symphony to invite the students into our ‘home,’” says Thoren. “The energy of these concerts is just fantastic and it’s exciting to see such a diverse group of students all come together to experience the joy of music in a beautiful setting. Our students have such tremendous respect and admiration for our teaching artists—they’re like rock stars—and it’s exciting for them to finally see their musician perform on stage, doing what they do best, after hearing about the orchestra all year in their classrooms or assemblies.”
Each Class Act school also concludes its season with a Bravo Assembly, where students have the chance to show off all they have learned in formats of their choosing: dance, music, theater, writing or visual art presentations. Many children have expressed what they’ve learned by creating unique artwork—including drawings and paintings depicting seasonal changes; several classes created murals that are on display in their schools.
“At Pacific Symphony, we’ve come to realize that we can impact more lives more deeply by working through partnerships, such as with Class Act,” says Kotses. “By building unique bonds with partners, we are creating something much more valuable together than we would ever have been able to create separately.”
Class Act is presented for a minimal charge to participating schools in 18 cities countywide and has been recognized by the American Symphony Orchestra League and National Endowment for the Arts as one of the nine most exemplary music education programs in the United States.
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