The other day, soon after a gaggie of seventh graders raced into her afternoon music class at Takoma Middle School, Luvenia A. George had them listening to a record of the Gamelan music of Indonesia.
The music droned in steady melodic and rhythmic fashion. "What elements does this music have?" aksed George in her ringing soprano voice. "Does it have melody, tone color, harmony, rhythm?"
Hands shot up and the youngsters shouted a host of answers.
She resolved their confusion by telling them exactly what the music contained. George then asked her charges to get their instruments - conga drums, bongos, wood blocks, bells, chimes - and produce what they had heard. Their deliberate and overstated efforts, which she recorded, resembled the original.
Later, George was playing John Coltrane's recording of "My Favorite Things" as another group of seventh graders flocked to their seats. "What kind of music is this we're hearing?" she asked. Several voices rang out: "Jazz!"
After getting a variety of answers why Coltrane's music was jazz, George settled everything. "What makes this jazz is a big word with a simple meaning - improvisation," she explained. "That means you make up the music as you go along."
She also told her students they could probably find Coltrane's albums in the record collections of their parents. "He was one of our greatest musicians," she said.
Is this just fun - or serious musical instruction? Well, as George sees it, by putting her students through these paces they can learn the music of such disparate cultural groups as American Indians and Africans with the same ease as they learn how to add and subtract.
But first they must learn the basic elements. "Any music can be approached through the elements," said George, whose book, "Teaching the Music of Six Different Cultures in the Modern Secondary School," came out last year.
She continued: "I've been to concerts at the Kennedy Center and watched adults walk out on contemporary classical music because they didn't understand what they were hearing."
So George, who is in her mid-30s, puts her students through paces that have them examining the basic components.
The classroom is her laboratory, and she likes to sprinkle it with a variety of materials. The other day, for example, she asked her students about new National Symphony conductor Mstilav Rostropovich (with the aside "One of these days we'll have women as conductors, girl!").
Immediately afterward, she took them through a conducting exercise. The class also sang and then played a set of African polyrhythms George had marked out on the chalk board.
She's been using this multi-cultural approach for five or six years, and is lobbying to expand this appraoch in D.C. schools. Out of this method came her book in which she explores diffuse ways of teaching the music of American Indians, Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Africans, black Americans and Jews.
"Jewish music is the most difficult to introduce to the students," said George, "because of its Oriental mode. Many of them empathize with American Indian music, even though it's foreign to most children."
George said she's also got her eighth-grade students involved in a simplified form of composition in which they notate the sequence in which instruments should be played. "I've even introduced them to contemporary classical music," she added, "people like (Karlheinz) Stockhausen and the like."
All of this fits into George's philosophy of music education. "These students' tastes in, music must be guided," she explained. "Other subjects are taught from the ground up. if they don't understand the basics, they won't know what they're listening to. That's one reason why so few blacks go to symphony concerts. If you don't understand what you're hearing, you just have music rushing at you."
George becomes indignant when she talks about the lack of funds for music education programs in the public schools. "Money is constantly being cut from music programs," she explained. "Students need the esthetic side of life, and this is one way we can give it to them. I'd like to see the community support music education more in our schools. The arts are central."