Music to Their Ears at Carver, Valentine

Thomas Simpson excitedly sought out Principal Liz Hollingsworth at Carver Elementary School recently. In the band class he leads before school one day each week, he had just shot a video on his iPhone, and he couldn’t wait to show it to her.
As the clip rolled, a room of 5th-graders worked their way through “Hot Cross Buns,” a beginning-music staple of four bars, comprising three notes in various expressions. It was an unorthodox assemblage of instruments: a few trumpets, clarinets and saxophones, an absolute sea of flutes, plus a tuba. In the performance, there was a squeak and a honk here and there from the reed instruments, but expressions were intent and the melody was on tempo and unmistakable.
An unqualified success for a program in which most of the kids picked up their instruments for the first time when school began this fall.
It’s a reflection of an expanded instrumental music program at Carver and Valentine elementary schools this year. Before, Ben Ubovich had to pop over from the high school to teach band. Joan Reeve Owens was on hand to conduct general music instruction and lead the schools’ superlative choral groups. Now, the schools share Simpson, a man of diverse musical experience whose sole responsibility is teaching instrumental music at the two elementary schools.
And there’s something new this year: strings instruction. Small ensembles of intermediate players, possessing at least two years of lessons, meet one day a week before classes begin at each school. Beginners get together after school.
“We’re calling it strings because orchestra connotes other instruments,” said Simpson, whose intermediate ensembles include eight violins at Valentine, six violins and two cellos at Carver.
“It’s really exciting to see,” Valentine Principal Colleen Shields said. “I think we’ve had a strong vocal program for several years, but we’re continuing to expand and give that full, rich musical experience.”
Taking lessons to learn a string instrument presents a youngster with a solitary practice regimen, much like piano. The intermediate strings ensemble, which requires the children to perk up in the music room at 7:45 in the morning, presents new challenges.
“Here, they practice mainly playing together, which is as it should be,” said Homeira Ashghari, whose daughter Lily plays violin at Carver. “Playing in a group is important — keeping the beat, knowing where to stop and how, if you don’t play in tune, it shows. The whole orchestra is different than playing by yourself. I’m happy that she’s having that. That’s the fun part of playing music, and she’s very excited.”
“The ensemble experience is different,” Simpson agreed. “You have to learn it, and you have to learn to listen to the people next to you. ‘Someone next to me messed up, but I’ve got to keep going.’ Or I can mess up and have to keep going.”
And, my, the ambition! The intermediate strings students are working on the “Spring” concerto from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” for a concert in January that will present the combined bands and string ensembles from both schools. The strings are also tackling Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 2,” though it has been rescored in the key of G to make it a little easier to play.
“I think it’s pretty cool and interesting how they can just make up a bunch of violinists and cellists in school and make an orchestra out of that,” said Henry Liu, a 5th-grader at Carver who plays violin in the ensemble.
Simpson’s broad musical background is a real asset in his instruction. He played clarinet as a youngster, moved on to flute, piccolo and bassoon in high school, and also plays piano, cello and percussion. He has extensive professional background singing in chorales and conducts two handbell choirs in Pasadena.
All good, but standing over a 10-year-old who is blowing into a clarinet for the very first time requires more than musical training alone. Simpson seems to have a gentle touch with these earnest musical neophytes.
“Drums! You seem to keep going,” he called out during a band rehearsal at Valentine. “You need to stop when we stop.”
“What did I tell you saxes? Too much,” he said at another juncture. “If your cheeks puff out, you’re playing too much.”
“Why did you stop playing?” he asked of a string player at Carver.
“I don’t know where we are,” came the reply. (Instead of rectifying the situation himself, Simpson asked one of the more accomplished students to help the first student find his place on the page, which nurtured a leadership role in the latter.)
“His passion and his love for music really show through,” Shields said of the new teacher. “Plus, he’s very patient. I think he understands children really well — how they think and how to motivate them. I know he’s been really pleased with the progress the students have already made in a few weeks’ time.”
Simpson may be patient, but he’s no pushover. Placing a musical instrument in the hands of any youngster creates a powerful compulsion to play it, but he has a rule: We only play together. If a student starts playing during one of the lulls, there is a three-strikes rule: After two warnings, you’re asked to leave the class. At the outset of the program, participants also had to sign a commitment form, agreeing to practice a certain amount of time on their own.
Not that that has been much of an issue. Simpson has found that kids will stop by the music room at lunchtime or during recess and play in little ad hoc groups. Away from school, he added, “they practice very hard. I’m surprised. I never practiced this hard when I was a kid.”
The first fruit of that labor will be a holiday program, including choral groups, in December, followed by the instrumental concert in January. It takes a healthy imagination to wonder how the latter might come out, especially with the band classes. The teacher’s only requirement for participation in these classes, after all, was “to show up.”
“I tell them, ‘If you can’t make a sound now, that’s OK. Keep trying,’” Simpson said. “It just takes a little while for some kids. … I know it’s going to happen. It always does. Yeah, there’s some faith involved. I’ve just never had it not happen.”
As for the intermediate strings, Simpson emailed another video last week, this one of the Valentine ensemble playing the Vivaldi. It was an impressive effort.
“It takes a very skilled teacher to understand what you’re building toward,” said Carver’s Hollingsworth, “because you’re not going to hear it right away. He knows where they are now compared to where he’s going to be taking them. It’s kind of like talking to our 1st-grade teachers and seeing where kids are with their reading, and seeing where they’re going to be in April and May, which is a huge change.”
The process is an incremental one, achieved gradually, measure by measure.
“What’s different about No. 11?” Simpson calls out to the band at Valentine. “Yes, it has half notes. Everything’s held for two beats. OK, one, two, here we go …”

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