Go tell Aunt Rhody, go tell Aunt Rhody, go tell Aunt Rhody, the old gray goose is dead. Ten tiny bows stroke ten mini-violins, some only sixteenth the size of a normal instrument. The tune is recognizable, but the sound is not quite as smooth as Sheila Johnson, director of the Capital Children's Museum Orchestra, wants it.
"Hey, not bad, but the part about 'the old gray goose is dead' sounds a little fuzzy," says Johnson, and the kids keep on practicing, calling out the numbers that stand for notes as they play.
"There are the youngest children in the orchestra," Johnson tells a visitor. "Some of them have only been playing for three weeks. Jeremiah is the youngest -- he's four. We do have some three-year-olds, but they're not doing the concert this Saturday."
"It figures," says eight-year-old Dean, sotto voce.
To get the kids' attention, Johnson has them put their bows on their heads when she turns to the piano.
"When you hear this chord, that's the cue to put the violin under your chin," she tells them, and they try "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" again: The one that she's been saving, The one that she's been saving, The one that she's been saving, To make a feather bed. . .
As the violins play, Johnson talks about the orchestra, which she started about two years ago.
"I thought the Children's Museum ought to do more with the arts and I wanted to give my students a chance to perform, so I started bringing them to the museum on Saturdays," says Johnson. "Now we have a 64-piece, allstring orchestra. The kids are from three to 18. Next year I hope to add a woodwind section and a brass section. . .
"It's getting so much better," she tells the kids, who have played several more rounds of "Aunt Rhody." "But I think we need to do it one more time."
The kids are getting restless, and some of them protest mildly.
"Let's take a vote," suggest six-year-old Paul.
But Johnson is firm.
"This is your thing. You're going to be the only ones playing it," she urges them. "There will be a piano, yes. But none of the bigger ones will be playing it with you."
Several rounds of "Aunt Rhody" later, the parents have come to take the kids home, and Johnson pronounces the group ready.
"I think things will go well," she tells them and asks the parents to have the children at the National Theater by nine that Saturday morning.
"The performance begins at 9:30, and I'll have to tune everybody's violin," she says. "There's a second performance at 11, but they don't have to do the second show if they don't want to. If they do stay, they'll have juice and doughnuts in between." d
"I'll stay," volunteers Dean.
At the National on Saturday, an audience of children the same ages as the children in the orchestra packs the mezzanine. The older children in the orchestra sit on folding chairs on a platform, while the youngest stand in front on a step. The whole group plays "Hoe Down," and then it's time for the younger ones to solo.
"These little tiny players," Johnson calls them in her introduction, and on cue the bows tell the tale of Aunt Rhody and the gray goose. After enthusiastic applause, the little ones sit on the step and listen to the rest of the concert. During the Bradenburg concerto, the mother of six-year-old Nicholas calls him from the sidelines.
"He wanted to stay for the next show, but we have another commitment," she explains. "He really wanted to stay for the doughnuts in between."
As the kids eat doughnuts, Johnson rearranges chairs, tunes violins and answers questions.
"I think it's very important for children to perform for children and for children to see their own peer group perform," she says. "Children are always seeing older people perform, but it goes so much deeper when the performers are other children. Then they say to themselves: 'I can do it!'"