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PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY

An Elementary Lesson in Classical Music

Montpelier Elementary School fourth-graders Mojisola Ogunbode, from left, Tamira Johnson, Cavalo Milfort and Kayla Brown enjoy a game in the Kennedy Center before seeing the National Symphony Orchestra. Prince George's County has sent all of its fourth-graders to see concerts this week.
Montpelier Elementary School fourth-graders Mojisola Ogunbode, from left, Tamira Johnson, Cavalo Milfort and Kayla Brown enjoy a game in the Kennedy Center before seeing the National Symphony Orchestra. Prince George's County has sent all of its fourth-graders to see concerts this week. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

If music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, as the English dramatist William Congreve wrote about three centuries ago, yesterday it did something even more remarkable: It quieted a concert hall packed with 2,500 fourth-graders.

The young students, vibrating with energy, were from Prince George's County. For the first time, the county has sent all of its fourth-graders to a series of concerts at the Kennedy Center this week in a partnership with the National Symphony Orchestra.

All meaning 8,000.

Before the concert began, the students were making music of their own. After leaving scores of school buses waiting outside in the parking lot, the students marveled at the center's flag-draped Hall of Nations. One group of seven singing girls from Port Towns Elementary School in Bladensburg, holding hands in a circle, played a clapping game in time with a ditty about "The Simpsons."

Derick Johnson, 10, was there with the girls. He likes dancing, he said, and his favorite music is hip-hop. But he has a soft spot in his heart for classical music, too.

"I really like Beethoven," Derick said. Part of the appeal was how the young composer overcame difficult circumstances. "His dad was an alcoholic. He would always get punched, kicked, beat if he messed up" while playing the piano, Derick said gravely.

Asked whether he had heard of Mozart, Derick shook his head.

Derick's was not a unique response. With an increasing national focus on passing tests in reading and math, the amount of time spent in school studying the arts, as well as science and social studies, has declined. So Emil de Cou, the associate conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra, was understandably enthusiastic about the opportunity to expose young people to the arts.

"I have yet to meet a teacher who thinks excluding the arts is a good idea," de Cou said. "If you just memorize facts and figures and numbers, you're not contributing to society. You're a maker of widgets." The arts, he said, "can be a divine spark that grows."

The students, most in school uniforms but many wearing suits or dresses, were at full boil as they filed into the concert hall and found their seats.

The noise of a thousand conversations stopped when the lights grew dim, and the children cheered. The few stragglers who continued talking were cut off by a chorus of students and teachers hissing, "Shhh!"

De Cou outlined the concert: "The Sounds of Time," a survey of 400 years of orchestral music from George Frideric Handel to John Williams. Then a performer played "Greensleeves" on a recorder.


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