In their own words

The Chittick fifth graders took time out of their recess to write or dictate a few sentences about playing an instrument. Today, this documentation can serve as a glimpse into their current world of music. Each year, or even more often, we will ask them to talk or write about their experiences in the program. Not only will their experiences through music grow and change, but so will their abilities to express them, and we want to know about both.

The best thing about learning how to play the viola is that once you know the viola, you can play other instruments too. If you get bored, or you have time, you can play the viola at home. I am excited about the concert, and excited about the field trips.

I love playing the violin because when I come home with it everyone wants to hear me play and it makes me feel good. I also like playing because I always wanted to play an instrument, and now I can. I love the violin, it is so cool.

I am happy to be in strings because before when I wasn’t in strings, at home when I was done with my homework all I did was watch T.V. and my dad says I have an intelligence in music and I took that advice and at school I went to ask “can I be in the strings group?” and when they said “Yes” I jumped for joy. That’s why I am lucky to be in strings.

I like cello because I get to play every Thursday. And because I get to learn a lot of songs. And I get to take it home.

If you play the violin, you can have something to do every time of the day and also if you keep playing you could become famous or just become very good at it.

When I play violin I get to play songs I never heard before. If you keep playing, and when you practice, you could be a professional. When I played violin before, in Georgia, they didn’t teach me this. The difference is I get to play with other people.

I like violin because it is different from the others – it is the only instrument that has an “E” string. I like to practice because you get to earn prizes – it helps you to learn.

I like cello. You can play nice songs, and you can play lower beats with the music. You can feel your body inside the music playing.


The best thing about playing an instrument is that it is an honor to play it and I’m really glad about that cause it makes me feel like that I can be the best of the best. And what makes it so special is that I’m the [first] kid in the Boston Citywide Orchestra and it’s an honor to play for an orchestra cause I get to practice more and also it makes me feel like I can do what I never think of. That’s why I’m so happy to play the viola

I play the cello because it always seemed like a fun instrument to play. And I think I will stick to that instrument. And I am excited for the performance on December 10th. And I can’t wait to be there.

Playing the cello may take a lot of work and a lot of strength but once you master it you find out that it is really not that difficult. I feel good about myself, about playing the cello. It is a gift to play an instrument.

Chamber Music at Chittick

“What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?” asked Rachel. Instead of warming up on her violin and getting ready for chamber music rehearsal, Rachel was reading a card that she had pulled from a box she’d found in the special education classroom we were in. The question surprised me and distracted me. It was my first teaching day with the Boston Public Quartet at the Chittick School, and I was trying hard to stay on top of things, such as figuring out what we were supposed to be doing, learning students’ names, communicating with my colleague, and keeping track of equipment, photocopied music, and students, and time. Was Rachel was going to be difficult to work with? Was she taking advantage of my soft-spoken nature? I am not a disciplinarian; she could probably tell.

But I really liked the question she posed. I have seen a lot of beautiful things in my life. A flurry of images flashed in my mind: my twenty-one-month-old nephew’s smiling face; the blue of the Mediterranean Sea against white cliffs at Agios Georgios Alemanos beach in Cyprus; a New Hampshire pond with a full moon reflecting in its water; the enormous murals at the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston. These and other images were competing for first place, tying, and demanding rematches in my mind as I set up three music stands. I deferred to Rachel. “I have to think about it. What about you? What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

“Arizona,” Rachel said with confidence. “The desert is not dry and brown like you might think. It’s really colorful and there are all kinds of plants.” Even though we were running late for rehearsal I could tell we were having a special moment that shouldn’t be disrupted—she was smiling, relishing a happy memory of a special trip. I asked her to describe it more—I’d never been to the desert.

Violist Jahvarey and cellist Kevin wandered into the room, and after a couple more questions from the box we got started on our rehearsal. We practiced reading and following each other’s body language so we could stay rhythmically and expressively unified. We played in unison, in counterpoint, and finally in four-part harmony.  We helped each other concentrate and succeed; we also lost focus, teased each other, and argued a little bit. It was exhilarating! There we were, having a fully authentic chamber music rehearsal, no different from my experiences with college and professional music groups, except that we were at a public elementary school in Mattapan, three of us were beginners, and we weren’t playing Mozart or Beethoven—we were playing “Jingle Bells” and “Inch Worm” on borrowed instruments.

When I was Rachel’s age I took private lessons and played violin alone, with piano accompaniment, and in a large orchestra. But I didn’t have the opportunity to sit down with my friends and teachers to engage in the awesomely democratic, challenging, fun activity of chamber music until I was in high school. I fell in love with chamber music immediately. I loved having an individual voice that I didn’t have to share with eight other violinists. I loved having a say in the interpretation of a piece of music, and loved the intimate, social quality of chamber music rehearsals, and the kind of friendships that resulted from those experiences. I didn’t get nervous or bored when I played chamber music—it was like a dinner party in which my fellow musicians and I were the chefs, hosts, and guests all at once. What could be better than that?

That first day at the Chittick School, our little dinner party didn’t go totally smoothly; we had some major spills and sometimes our arguments and distractions became so out-of-control that our feast came dangerously close to being spoiled. But there were moments when Rachel, Kevin, and Jahvarey and I truly unified, and it was clear that we were all aware of and excited by those moments. After playing through “Jingle Bells” in four parts, it seemed appropriate to celebrate. Rachel found the box of questions and pulled out a card.

“What is the definition of ‘lucky’?” she asked. The three children toyed with ideas. “Getting something you want.” “Winning.” “Having good luck.” After this first day at Chittick I had a very clear answer to that question, at least for myself. This is a very good program, organized with great love and care by Betsy and the others in the quartet, and supported by people who understand the unique power and beauty of music, in particular chamber music, and the relevance of it in this particular community. Without any hesitation on the part of the other members of the quartet or the students, I was welcomed immediately into this community and included in all kinds of fascinating and challenging musical and non-musical conversations. I felt lucky to be part of all of this. When it was my turn to answer the question, I said, “Lucky is when you are able to appreciate something special that is happening to you.”

After three amazing weeks at the Chittick School with the BPQ, Rachel, Jahvarey, Kevin, and the other children, it is clear to me that I am not the only one who feels very lucky.


A day in the life

A portrait of a typical Thursday in Mattapan:

Thursday is my favorite day. At about 9:30 am, I drive to the Chittick along Cummins Highway, about 15 minutes from Roslindale Village. When I walk into the school, all is quiet, all classrooms are hard at work on Math or Reading, or are in Theatre Arts or Computers. I set up to begin teaching our newest crop of young musicians. Carpet squares and 1/4 sized violins donated by Johnson String Instrument are placed in the hall, right outside the First Grade classroom doors. I take out my violin and tune it, and the first group of four kids assemble themselves. As requested, the first grade teachers send out students who may have the most trouble with behavior, or fine motor skills, or following directions. And we begin. We sing the song “Inchworm” while kids navigate their way around tricky zippers, buckles, and Velcro. They know that we always take out the bow first, and tighten it, and add rosin. All is quiet and calm. I let the students know that if they can be respectful of one another’s “lesson time” then they will earn one minute of “free choice playing” on the violin. The kids work on “spider crawls” (a bow exercise) while I call them up one at a time to play the “E string Lullaby.” I send them back to their classrooms with glowing faces full of pride, and good reports for their classroom teachers, often the best report of the week. Each visit back to the classroom to get the next group I am greeted with hugs and longing looks from all of the rest of the 36 children who desperately want me to teach them the violin too…

Now the time is 2:20. I have unloaded the box of fruit donated by Boston Organics from the car, and prepare snack for the fifth graders. I cut bunches of organic grapes and open the box of kiwi berries, knowing these two favorites will go fast. Our fifth graders shuffle in and find a place to set their things in the un-heated gym. Shortly thereafter, Marji, Jen and Ashleigh arrive and we are ready to begin. First things first, each student must finish their homework. One student needs extra help with reading, so she reads aloud to me for 5 minutes. Jen helps some students finish their math. Then, each instrument group settles into their space; Jen works with the cellists, Ashleigh with the violists and I with the violinists. Marji works with any students who need extra help, or one on one attention in the hallway. Two of our students pull me aside, they made a discovery earlier that day, and every Thursday it seems, they hear the song “Inchworm” coming from some other classroom in the morning…I smile, loving the simplicity of this connection. After an hour, the students find their chamber music partners and their coach, and we all learn how to connect – melody and harmony, eyes and ears, teachers and students, friends and classmates.