Careers & Ed: Symphony of instruction

AIM brings classical to kids
Photo by Kristen Loken

It may have been San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, but at times it felt more like a Pentecostal revival meeting. Forget about rules or decorum: when the spirit moved them, this crowd let loose. Imaginary batons twirled. Heads tick-tocked. Feet tapped. Giggling and applause burst out at all the wrong times.

You haven't really experienced the symphony until you've sat among 2,200 first and second graders at their first live orchestra performance, hundreds of them conducting the orchestra from their seats.

"Movement is exactly what we want," says Ronald Gallman, director of the San Francisco Symphony's Education Programs, Youth Orchestra and Adventures in Music (AIM) program. "We wouldn't be doing our jobs if they were sitting with their hands folded in their laps."

Not everyone acts like inspired little savages; others revel in acting like adults. One girl watched the performance through a pair of improvised opera classes — tiny binoculars she brought from an explorer's kit at home.

It's somewhat of a relief to learn that kids of the iPod generation can still appreciate classical music. It helps that musicians in the AIM program understand a few basic principles of child psychology: keep performances short, allow plenty of opportunities to shout out and move around, and throw in a fart joke or two for good measure (the tuba player who introduced his instrument with a flatulent blast got the biggest laughs of any joke in the performance).

Founded in 1988, the AIM program serves first through fifth graders at every public elementary school in San Francisco — an impressive 75 schools — as well as third through fifth graders in some private and parochial schools, totaling more than 22,000 children. Beyond the innovation, this is only possible because the AIM program is funded entirely by private donors, foundations, and events like the Black and White Ball — which means that it's offered at no cost to the schools. According to Gallman, this level of commitment to building equitable access to music education in public schools makes the San Francisco Symphony stand apart as a national leader.

The symphony performance is just one piece of the larger AIM curriculum, which includes four ensemble shows per year at each school as well as comprehensive materials to help teachers build interdisciplinary lesson plans around the AIM performances. Each school is able to choose the ensembles it wants — with options including jazz and all varieties of world music — thus allowing for culturally appropriate programming at different schools.

At the Claire Lilienthal School in the Richmond District on a recent school day, the Drei Brass trio had been chosen to perform for a gymnasium full of first and second graders seated on the floor, each of whom had been given a brightly colored plastic kazoo.

"Our show today is about three brass instruments and vibration!" announced Alicia Telford, the Drei Brass french horn player, her eyes wide and one eyebrow arched. She showed the kids how to feel the vibration in their vocal chords when they sung by placing a hand on the front of their neck.

Each of the brass players introduced himself as "an ambassador of ppppfffft," demonstrating that the music coming out of their instruments begins with a simple pppfffft blown into the mouthpiece — the same ppppfffft sound that the kids blow into their kazoos.

They also peppered their classical performance with recognizable tunes that the kids could intuitively follow, like the finger-snapping Pink Panther theme.

Kazoo-induced hyperactivity aside, it seems that teachers by and large are nothing but grateful for the AIM programming in their schools.

"Music is a great way to keep some children engaged who might not be the best readers or [who are] a bit behind.

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