Beyond music training and the teaching of life skills like commitment, perseverance, and how to work together, the Sound Minds music education program is also about exposing students in one of the poorest parts of the state to experiences that inspire and encourage them to imagine possibilities beyond anything they could ever have dreamed of before.
For students at Downer Elementary School, Sound Minds provides intensive music education and training for free, three days a week throughout the school year. It’s also a path to better grades and a brighter future, with students testing in Math proficiency at a rate up to 180% higher than those not in the program.
We take a closer look at a few of the horizon-expanding opportunities the kids have shared, including one-on-one time with pianist Charlie Albright; a masterclass with Concertmaster Jennifer Cho, and a side-by-side rehearsal with local high school students, led by music teacher and California Symphony violinist Patty Drury.
“How do you remember all the notes?”
“Do you play other instruments?”
“How do you play with your eyes closed..?”
After sitting in on a rehearsal for the September 2018 BEETHOVEN & BERNSTEIN concert, a group of Sound Minds students and teachers got to ask virtuoso Charlie Albright anything they liked, and they didn’t hold back.
Then the virtuoso pianist treated his young audience to an improvised extract of music from the Disney movie, “Coco,” a piece the students are working on this semester. They marveled at Charlie’s ability to play without music and listened intently as he explained that “improvisation is like giving an impromptu speech, and composing is like editing a paper in school—but you can’t do that when you improvise.”
We asked Charlie about the experience of working with the students and he told us: “It was wonderful sharing music with the Sound Minds kids, and discussing ideas on how music can connect people together. I was thrilled at how engaged the children were and how they seemed to understand that music is a means of expression and communication.”
“It is great that programs like Sound Minds exist to connect with children from different backgrounds and introduce them to the joys of music. Music is something that everyone can connect and express themselves through. I hope that the Sound Minds kids realized how music is a means of sharing and expressing emotions, and that through improvisation, they can create a piece of music that is uniquely theirs.”
In the spring, Concertmaster Jennifer Cho came to Downer Elementary to give a mini-masterclass to Sound Minds students. Brave student pairs played short passages as Jenny listened, offered encouragement and advice, and even played along.
Again, the students were full of questions, including how she overcomes nerves when she plays, how she plays so smoothly, and what to do if you lose your place in the music. (“Just keep breathing,” she advises. “Center your mind, just like a Jedi, and use your brain to focus.”)
And then she sealed her reputation as a bona fide rock star by launching into themes from Star Wars.
I want them to know that you can drive down the freeway with the windows down, blasting Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and rocking out. — Concertmaster Jennifer Cho
Says Jenny, “The kids were so attentive and enthusiastic. I think they enjoyed watching a musician up close.”
“Music can be so many different things to a child as they grow up. It can be a fun social activity but also a catalyst for intense personal development and opinions. It can heal and soothe the aches and pains of life but also be a healthy outlet for outrage and energy. How many teaching tools are available that have this kind or reach and impact?”
Asked what she wanted the kids to take away from the experience, she replied: “People so often mistake classical music for something you listen to in the bathtub with a glass of wine as you drift off to sleep. I want these kids to realize that is only a small fraction of what music can provide. I want them to know that you can drive down the freeway with the windows down, blasting Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and rocking out.”
Patty Drury teaches music at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon. She also plays the violin with the California Symphony and it’s through that connection that her high school students have developed a relationship with Downer Elementary School, including pen pal letter exchanges and side-by-side rehearsals with the Sound Minds kids.
“I feel strongly about the great value of the Sound Minds program in its use of music to support at-risk youth,” she says. “I especially like sharing the joy of making music. In this way I still feel like a kid at heart!”
“It is important that such programs exist because they bring positivity, skills, support, opportunity, and pride to the participants — all of which promote well-being and good citizenship, and enable the students to be self-actualized, contributing members of their community. The gift of music is a life enhancement no matter what their ultimate vocation may be.”
“Seeing their faces light up when they grasp a new technique or concept, or the pride they feel when they hear the results of their efforts is immensely rewarding.”—Patty Drury
When asked what is special about side-by-side rehearsals, Patty continues: “When people make music together it is a collaboration of the highest order. It forges a connection through a unified artistic purpose and results in a beautiful collective sound. It truly is an example of ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. To be amidst the swell of sound which results is thrilling, especially for a student in the early years of their musical development. From what I observed, the Sound Minds students feel very good about the care and interest shown them by the DVHS students. In their DVHS buddies, the Sound Minds kids have another person who cares about them, supports their efforts, models orchestral skills, and enjoys a shared interest in music.”
The benefits of the relationship are not a one-way street, says Patty. “Collaborating with the Sound Minds program allows the DVHS students to share with the Downer Elementary School musicians something that is very close to their heart. The partnership also allows them to experience what it feels like to give of themselves, sharing something they’ve enjoyed abundantly with those in an under-served community.”
“I believe it broadens their perspective as well, and perhaps makes them more fully appreciate the many advantages, privileges, and opportunities they have had along the way. I can tell from their comments that they genuinely care about the Sound Minds students. They were effusive and animated as they described their side-by-side experience with their Sound Minds buddies.”
And as for what Patty gets out of the experience, “The Sound Minds kids are genuinely eager to learn, so it is especially gratifying to instruct and inspire them. Seeing their faces light up when they grasp a new technique or concept, or the pride they feel when they hear the results of their efforts is immensely rewarding.”
You can support the Sound Minds program and other music education and community engagement initiatives, making a difference in the lives of thousands of people in the Bay Area, when you give during the Fall Matching Challenge—our largest fundraiser of the 2019/20 season. Your gift is matched and your impact doubled through October 31, 2019. Donate online or call the office at 925.280.2490 for assistance.