Gazette - February 25, 2009
Damascus fifth-graders, BSO make music
by Melissa J. Brachfeld | Staff Writer
Sixty fifth-graders at Damascus Elementary School transported teachers and students back in time as they put their own twist on a classic American folk song Monday morning with the help of three professional musicians.
From shaking maracas to strumming the guitar, the young musicians played the 19th century Shaker song "Simple Gifts."
This marks the second consecutive year the school is participating in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program known as ‘‘Themes and Variations."
The program involves orchestra musicians visiting the school twice — first to introduce the song and provide sheet music to fourth and fifth grade students and then to perform with them.
It is just one of the several "BSO on the Go" programs offered through the orchestra's affiliation with The Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda.
Richard Spero, community liaison for the BSO at Strathmore, said bassoonist Fei Xie and oboists Sandra Gerster and Michael Lisicky paid their first visit to the school in December to introduce the song.
Students were then divided into 11 small groups and challenged to put their own spin on the melody. Spero said that included adding instruments, changing the tempo and subtracting or adding notes.
Once that was done, students sent their compositions to the musicians who "harmonized it," he said. The results add up to a completely original performance each time.
Before the concert, one student from each group stood in front of the audience of third- and fourth-graders and explained what they had changed about the song.
"We changed the dynamic markings, the values of the notes and added in instruments," Samantha Newman, an 11-year-old Damascus resident, said. "But we wanted to keep the tempo the same."
The result was a rich melody punctuated with the strumming of Samantha's guitar and the soft notes of 10-year-old Isabel Harman's xylophone.
Gerster, Lisicky and Xie ended the performance by playing the beginning of the song as it was originally composed before adding in each variation.
As she watched her classmates pack up their instruments, Isabel said the exercise was fun and challenging.
"We could do whatever we wanted because it was a variation and that gave us a lot of different opportunities," she said.
Angie Thompson, the students' music teacher, said she was impressed by what the young musicians had created in just three short class periods.
"To have them create their own music is a great experience for them," she said.
In addition to Damascus Elementary School, Travilah in Potomac and Broad Acres in Silver Spring are participating in the fifth grade program, while Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington is taking part in the fourth grade program, Spero said. The Bullis School in Potomac is participating in both.
After going into each school, Lisicky said he finds himself amazed by what students dream up.
"Even when you go from school to school, each quality or character of the variation is just so different and just so unique," he said. "You never have two that are alike and that's what's great about this program."