PATERSON, NJ - As the students lined up in the hallway, waiting to enter the room where their cellos are stored, their teacher played a few notes on his own instrument. When his left hand moved up the neck and along the strings, one of the students asked, “What are those called?” “Octaves,” he replied.
That was just one of the teachable moments occurring at the Community Charter School of Paterson, where 30 students are now learning about music in an innovative afterschool program.
The Paterson Music Project was started in January by the New Jersey Youth Symphony, which comprises 10 orchestras and ensembles and includes approximately 400 young musicians throughout the state. The symphony is the orchestral music education organization of the Judith G. Wharton Music Center, a non-profit charitable organization.
The idea was to serve an underserved population in a city where music and other arts have been eliminated from the public school curriculum.
“We’re trying to give the students an introduction to music and demonstrate that music is part of the learning process,” said Carol Ulmer, the symphony’s director of marketing and development. “The discipline of focusing and being ready to learn are skills the children can use for other subjects.”
The pilot program at the Community Charter School began with second-graders who signed up to participate three days a week for two hours each session. Plans are to continue with that group and expand the program to another group of second-graders next year. Each successive year another incoming second grade class will be added.
For the present, the students are concentrating on string instruments. Eventually, organizers hope to develop a full-fledged orchestra for the entire school, which will include grades K through 8.
The program is supported through a $25,000 grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Funding to provide violins, violas and cellos for the children to use is provided by the Dombal-Vogel Foundation, the Henry S. and Agnes M. Truzack Foundation, the Provident Bank Foundation and the Wallerstein Foundation.
On a recent afternoon, the students spent the first hour of their session in one of two rooms. In the first room, with their teacher Terrence Thornhill, they practiced drumming with wooden sticks on overturned plastic buckets. He asked them if they could play softly, “so softly that if a baby was in the room he wouldn’t wake up.” Then he drilled them on drumming to various rhythms—“Mississippi hot dog,” “strawberry, blueberry” and “see you later, alligator.”
In a second room, students led by teacher Elizabeth Moulthrop practiced playing simple plastic recorders.
“Hold it down like a beard, not up like a water bottle,” she suggested.
In the meantime, a third teacher, Shanna Lin, pulled students out from their classrooms to give mini-lessons to students who needed extra help with playing simple melodies on their instruments.
In the next hour, students picked up their string instruments and ran through various melodies and rhythms. In the room with the cellos, Thornhill praised the students, “Some of you show excellent posture and some of you have good bow-holding,” he noted.
Earlier this spring, the students had a chance to participate in the NJYS spring gala in Rahway. The students joined with members of another orchestra in a piece specially commissioned by the symphony’s artistic director, Jeffrey Grogan.
The growing confidence of the students was demonstrated this week when Thornhill asked his students to play a particular scale.
“Oh, that’s easy!” one of his budding cellists exclaimed and bent to his instrument.