Wednesday, May 8, 2013

AIM aims high for music education

Classmates Anya Middle (left) and Caroline Irons sway to the music by the Ka-Hon Ensemble at a performance for the students at Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, April 19, 2013. The San Francisco Symphony's Adventures In Music program brings musicians to the schools to teach children about the importance of rhythm and sound.


When a South American fusion band trained by the San Francisco Symphony started drumming onstage one recent morning, Stella Gould sat rapt. As the show ended, she clapped politely, smiled as her friend took a camera-phone picture, and rose to leave.

"I would give it 25 stars," said Stella, who said she has seen "many, many" Symphony concerts now. "The best by far. Cultural, rich, awesome-amazing."

That Stella Gould is 10 years old and that the concert was in the Alvarado Elementary School auditorium would have been a surprise in many quarters, but not in San Francisco.

For the past 25 years, first- through fifth-graders at every public school in San Francisco have gone through a comprehensive music curriculum, Adventures in Music (AIM), funded and run by the San Francisco Symphony.

The Symphony brings musicians to play Western classical, Latin American and Asian music in school auditoriums. Unique when it started in 1988, the curriculum - where 25,000 students attend eight performances at school and go on a field trip to Davies Symphony Hall - remains the only city-wide program of its kind and size in the United States.

Over carrots and dried seaweed snacks at recess, Cameron Sacks, a 9-year-old who makes music videos of himself drumming using Photo Booth, said that "usually we only get 30 minutes of music on Tuesday if we sign up with the teachers. Today was way, way hundred times better."

The AIM organizers and the band, Ka-Hon, stood around the simple plywood box drums (cajones, from Peru) that had been the morning lesson.

"It's hard to overstate how special this program is," said AIM co-founder Sammi Madison. "No other city in the U.S. has this. Very few programs this significant have ever, ever been brought to scale."

Back in the late '80s, music departments around the country were being cut - and San Francisco was hit hard. By 1988, the number of public school music teachers had fallen from 125 to 59 (an average of 867 students per teacher) - "the school system has bought no new instruments since the 1970s," The Chronicle reported in December of that year.

Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
Javier Cabanillas lets students beat on a cajon percussion instrument during a performance by the Ka-Hon Ensemble at Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, April 19, 2013. The San Francisco Symphony's Adventures In Music program brings musicians to the schools to teach children about the importance of rhythm and sound.

Yet the Symphony, thanks to private benefactors, was thriving.

"It got to the point where the Symphony just sat down with the school districts and said, listen, we have to do something," said Ronald Gallman, 56, the Symphony's director of education and youth orchestra. "Or there won't be a sophisticated, educated audience."

The Symphony's education department amounted to Gallman, then 31, and a small group of other young employees who worked out of the windowless basement of Davies.

Gallman called Sammi Madison, a writer and producer living in Oakland. He had an idea for an audience-centric music curriculum and needed someone to help write a proposal. Madison and a consultant, Mitchell Korn, trekked through dozens of schools, taking music classes across the city, interviewing over a hundred teachers and meeting with parents.

They realized that many students didn't have even a basic awareness of the elements of musical performance - and that the changing demographics of San Francisco meant a traditional western classical educational program could seem out of place.

"So we decided to build it exactly for San Francisco, for the students we were meeting," Madison said.

Paul Chinn, The Chronicle
Javier Cabanillas lets students beat on a cajon percussion instrument during a performance by the Ka-Hon Ensemble at Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, April 19, 2013. The San Francisco Symphony's Adventures In Music program brings musicians to the schools to teach children about the importance of rhythm and sound.

Their curriculum, which emphasizes the role of the audience as an active participant, brought in elements from Latin America and Asia, along with traditional western composers like Beethoven.

"At the time it was absolutely revolutionary," said Madison. "The idea that students should be provided musical experiences from different cultural traditions, including their own traditions, that it should be fun but sophisticated enough that they could then go to the symphony and understand - it just hadn't been done before."

The Symphony's assistant conductor at the time, Leif Bjaland, had been working with the established youth concert series (which has put on classical shows for children since 1919) and stepped in to help.

"There were very few places that would ever embark on the AIM program - they'd say 'that's just not what orchestras do, orchestras play Beethoven, orchestras don't sponsor a mariachi group or an Asian group,' " said Bjaland, who at the time was living in Twin Peaks. "But San Francisco being the city it is, at the intersection of so many cultures, it was fertile ground."

The local response was almost universally enthusiastic - and in its second year, the AIM program received a $1 million dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The Symphony 25 years ago had a choice - of saying 'they need to come to us' or 'we're going to go to them in any way we can,' " Bjaland said. "And to great credit, they chose the latter."

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza, who began his career as a music teacher, said AIM dramatically expands the city's music instruction.

"It's one of our city's crowing jewels. Without AIM, there would be a hole in the musical experience of all our children in San Francisco," he said. "We have computers that can write and code. What sets the human species apart is that we have the ability to emotionalize what we see and what we hear."

Last year, the AIM program had a budget of over $1 million and included 24 concerts for kids at Davies. Each starts with a bright and upbeat opener, like Rossini's Overture to "The Barber of Seville," recognizable from Bugs Bunny. Students are often most excited about the building itself - with acoustic shields that hang above the stage, egg carton protrusions on the wall and heavy draperies.

"It's so good for them to be exposed to it, to realize it's not scary," Madison said. "And to have had classes before they visit."

Back at Alvarado Middle School, the fifth-graders jumped onstage to touch the drums. Several students asked the band questions in Spanish. A fusion band brought together by the Symphony, the Ka-Hon performers, led by Omar Ledezma, responded in Spanish.

Leaving the auditorium, the students were jumping and drumming the walls.

"We have clarinet every Tuesday for a little, but it gets kind of boring," said 11-year-old Xiarel Guillermo, who is teaching herself the music-mixing software GarageBand at home and was sharing her carrots at the wooden recess table. "This is totally different. It's a real concert."

Theo Gregoratos, 10, liked that "the drums were so loud. I bet it bothers the teachers' ears and only kids like it."

His older brother is teaching him to play the drums, and he said he wanted to learn how to play the Ka-Hon tracks.

Sitting next to him was 11-year-old Noah David who deemed the concert "different and festive. Very emotional."

Alvarado Principal Robert Broeker walked along the sunny hop-scotch area. He said he was grateful for the arts specialist Alvarado gets one day a week - "We're lucky enough to have that. Other schools are not so lucky. AIM is absolutely crucial for filling in the gaps for us and everyone else."

Madison, now director of education programs for the Symphony, sat in back of the auditorium, quietly flipping through the small textbooks each student receives from the Symphony. Updated every year, the booklet still has much of the curriculum she devised 25 years ago.

"The 25th anniversary isn't a Symphony celebration, it's a city celebration - because it's everywhere you look."