Third graders learn to listen — with help from drums, other noisemakers

Bill Vits, principal percussionist for the Grand Rapids Symphony, gets his third grade audience involved

Third grader Bryce Wood was reconsidering his career options after watching a 45-minute presentation by Bill Vits, principal percussionist for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

“I want to be a percussionist!” declared Bryce as he and 140 of his schoolmates from Pine Island Elementary School waited to exit the big theater at Celebration Cinema! North. “I like to play the piano, but I have good rhythm too,” he said.

Vits, who has been with the symphony 41 years, places about 40 different percussion instruments on stage. His collection includes a set of bones, dried gourds, a conga drum, a xylophone and a theramin, an electronic instrument that responds to hand motions.

“The human body is a percussion instrument,” said Vits, who makes sounds by slapping his cheek, snapping his fingers and pounding his chest. 

“Percussion can be anything,” said Vits as he played a conga drum for his rapt audience. 

Vits, who began playing the drums at age 7, told students how his career progressed through lessons, long hours of practice, school bands and finally, a job at the symphony. “I get paid to make noise.”

“I’m just trying to expose kids to the family of percussion and all those sounds that go with being a percussionist,” says Vits after his performance, one of two that day. “I’m trying to push the envelope to get them to realize it’s kind of the only family that is growing in the orchestra.”

Vits has staged percussion demonstrations for third graders from Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties every year for the past 20 years through a program funded by grants to local schools and the symphony, which gets a grant from RoMan Manufacturing Co. He will be seen by almost 3,300 third graders this year.

Amanda Hite, K-5 music teacher at Comstock Park School District’s Pine Island and Stoney Creek elementary schools, says the annual performance by Vits energizes her students. “They realize this (musical performance) is reachable for them,” says Hite, who has taught at Comstock Park for 20 years.

Panther-Symphony Partnership

The percussion demonstration is just one element of a comprehensive music program the district offers in cooperation with the Grand Rapids Symphony to introduce children to the world of music.

The program, which is largely funded by grants from local benefactors and the Comstock Park Educational Foundation, begins by taking children between kindergarten and the second grade on field trips to a Lollipop series of musical and ballet performances such as Peter and the Wolf and other child-friendly productions.

In the fourth grade, symphony members come to the schools and offer an “instrument petting zoo,” in which students can learn what it’s like to blow into a clarinet, play a drum or draw a bow across a string instrument.

By the fifth grade, the students produce art that is used as a backdrop for a symphony performance they attend at DeVos Performance Hall. At the end of the year, they are ready to choose an instrument if they want to continue studying music, says Hite.

Symphony & Schools

Dale Hovenkamp, manager of education and engagement for the Grand Rapids Symphony, said they provide programming for 87,000 students a year who attend public and private schools in Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties. The symphony outreach includes 41 artist-in-residence programs for elementary schools throughout the area.

The Lollipops concerts also are staged at schools in Wyoming and Hudsonville, Hovenkamp says. The fifth-grade symphony concerts also are staged at a Holland church to reduce travel time for Lakeshore schools.

Hovenkamp, a former Grand Rapids City High School principal, said the symphony also sponsors a Mosaic ensemble for up to 20 at-risk high school students who show musical aptitude.

 “You can see how kids who are exposed to the arts early on had very different school experiences,” he said. “We are not the silver bullet, but we are part of it.

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James Harger
James Harger reported on West Michigan's economy, courts and politics for The Grand Rapids Press and Mlive.com for more than 37 years. He also is employed as Servanthood Leader at Immanuel Lutheran Church in downtown Grand Rapids. A graduate of Central Michigan University, he also has worked for publications in Holland, Mount Pleasant and Lansing. He is married to Lisa and has one daughter, who lives in Ann Arbor. Read James' full bio or email James.

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