Students Play a Happy Tune with Symphony Pros

Visit Part of Long-term Partnership

Linda Nelson, violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony, shows Meeah Fisher how to hold a bow
Linda Nelson, violinist with the Grand Rapids Symphony, shows Meeah Fisher how to hold a bow

The three strings musicians who visited Pine Island Elementary this week didn’t have to do a whole song and dance to hold the attention of teacher Wendy Hawes’ fourth-graders. The songs were enough.

Jonathan Copsey’s hand shot up during the very first tune played by Grand Rapids Symphony violinist Linda Nelson, cellist Lorene Turkalo and Judy Kemph, who plays flute and piccolo.

Music teacher Amanda Hite (courtesy photo)

“I know that song you just played,” Jonathan said. “I’ve heard it in a video game I play.”

“That was Vivaldi,” Nelson said of the composer from a few centuries pre-pixel.

“Our students don’t often have the opportunity to see these instruments up close and talk to professional musicians,” said elementary music teacher Amanda Hite. “This experience makes them more appreciative and discriminating music listeners.”

But don’t let Jonathan’s present-day references fool you: This group of fourth-graders was introduced to the symphony in the first grade. And when quizzed by the trio on string and wind instruments — the larger the instrument or airspace, “the lower the sound,” they answered in unison — it showed that what they have been exposed to is sinking in.

Comstock Park has partnered with the Grand Rapids Symphony for 15 years through its Artists-in-Residence grant.

The two-year, $5,000 grant, provides tickets to symphony and ballet Lollipop concerts — a three-year rotation of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “Peter and the Wolf.” Stoney Creek students benefit from a separate grant, Hite said.

Who made that sound? Marley Spitler, left, plays something that gets a reaction from Willa Hands

Memorable Experiences

This year, district third-graders also saw symphony percussionist Bill Vits perform at Celebration! Cinema, and fifth-graders will attend a concert where they will hear pieces by Beethoven, Sousa, Bach, and others.

In addition, Hite partners with art teacher Holly Uecker-Herman to have students create artwork based on their experiences, and they also are given trading cards of musicians who visit.

The school’s PTO helps pay for some of the busing to outside performances, as well as for small-group symphony ensembles to perform for all K-5 students throughout the year.

“As the grant has continued, parents recall these opportunities as their favorite field trips, and teachers look forward to them every year,” Hite said. “I run into students in high school who say, ‘Remember when we saw the symphony and the ballet perform Little Red Riding Hood?'”

Seeing is definitely a big deal. Getting to touch is, too. “It is our hands-on experience that excites the students and brings it to life,” she said.

Nelson said music education not only provides information, but that “when we learn about music, we learn about ourselves. And the fun of being able to play in a group setting can be one of the most positive experiences in a young person’s life.”

Plus, she said, it undergirds everything else: cooperation and teamwork, attention, the desire to express yourself. “It’s just so darn fun you don’t want any child to miss it.”

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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