N.J. Symphony Orchestra artists teach Newark charter school students

NEWARK — The second-floor library of University Heights Charter School in Newark had been transformed into a concert hall, with 25 violinists arranged in three sections and grouped around music stands in the same way they would appear on a stage.

Standing in front, conductor Jeffrey Grogan was sweating as he came to the end of the 75-minute rehearsal. Working on the opening bars of Fanfare in Rondo, Grogan asked his musicians to perform the bow movement in the air, singing the notes as they moved their arms.


“D D D, E E F-sharp E” they sang in unison, their bows moving wildly in the air.

“Am I going too fast?” Grogan asked. “Nooooo,” he answered, his booming voice drowning out the chorus of yeses coming from behind the music stands.

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders giggled, then quickly regained their focus and played the piece from beginning to end.

“Great job,” Grogan congratulated his musicians as he left the makeshift podium.

Last Friday’s rehearsal with Grogan marked a turning point in a six-week pilot program run by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Fashioned after El Sistema, Venezuela’s music education program, the program aims to improve academic performance, discipline and focus through violin instruction.

The concept is a good match for University Heights Charter School, said its executive director, Misha Simmonds.

“The program really aligns well with our focus on character, scholarship and leadership,” Simmonds said. The students have learned discipline, focus and grit, he said. “It has fulfilled all of its expectations.”

For the last month, the 25 students have met after school three times a week for two-hour lessons with three NJSO teaching artists. The orchestra provides the instructors, and the school provides the violins and music stands. The intensive instruction moves quickly from the basics — how to hold the bow and violin and the names of the strings — to actually playing the notes and connecting them over several measures.

The students had to apply for the program; 25 of the 30 applicants were accepted.

The program also features in-school performances by NJSO musicians. A 45-minute concert with orchestra members Maya Shiraishi, on violin, and Lucy Corwin, on viola, featured snippets of well-known works from Beethoven, Bach and Mendelssohn. The students listened closely, applauded several times — mostly in appreciation of the fast-paced, tricky sections — and asked excellent questions during a Q-and-A session.

The program also gives students and their families the opportunity to attend NJSO performances in Newark. It ends May 4, with the students joining the Greater Newark Youth Orchestra onstage to perform the piece they learned.

“Today was extra special,” Grogan said after the rehearsal. “This shows them what it feels like to work together.”

The program’s lessons clearly extend beyond the music on the page. Grogan repeatedly congratulated his young charges on their ability to listen and stay focused.

“I’m so impressed with how you stuck in there,” said Dan Martinho, one of the three teachers who work with the students after school. He acknowledged that the afternoon program, with its 90-minute lesson, 75-minute rehearsal and 30-minute performance, was taxing. “You did great,” he said.

University Height’s music program includes recorder instruction, but these lessons were the first experience with string instruments for most of the students.

Fourth-grader Precious Kehinde said she is glad she signed up and hopes to continue next year.

“I like it because you can express all your feelings — any emotion you have you can play it out with the violin,” said Precious, 10.

“One day I came to violin and before I’d had an argument and I was mad, but once I started playing everything that I held in came out.”

NJSO and the school have agreed to a three-year partnership that would add a new grade level to the ensemble each year. The expansion will begin next fall if the two groups can secure funding.

Several students said they will continue with the lessons if the program is offered.

“It’s a fun experience,” fourth-grader Eric Shaw said.

“Sometimes it can be difficult,” added Precious, “but you get the hang of it.”

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