A New Rhythm at the Chittick

-Marji Gere, Education Director

Akeem and Jovanny smiling

Chittick 4th graders rehearse together

We’re heading toward our fifth week of teaching at the Chittick, and I’m happy to report that everything is going very well. Attendance rate is at a record high. We added eight brand new 3rd, 4th and 5th graders, three new teachers, and have doubled the hours of weekly programming per student. How? Through creative use of our current resources. Why? Because of the energy, commitment, and developing needs of our students. Some have been with us since the very beginning, and had outgrown our previous programming, and we simply could not ignore the excitement and longing of students who have been on our waiting list! Here’s what we’ve done:

Moving to After-School

After two years of wrestling with the complicated and crowded school day schedule, we moved 3rd -5th grade private lessons to after school, so now all regular programming – chamber music, lessons, large group enrichment classes, and our new orchestra (more on this later!) – happens between 2:15 and 6 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So far, this move away from the school day seems like a major improvement. We can teach half-hour-long private lessons in the spacious, quiet classrooms instead of the overheated, noisy hallways. We no longer have to plan around standardized testing schedules and field trips and all the other wonderful surprises that come with working as an arts partner in a public school. Not to worry: we have not entirely removed our weekly string serenades from the school culture; our 2nd grade classes still happen before the bell rings.


A 4th grade violist in her weekly private lesson

Claiming space

For those of you who visited or worked with us at the Chittick School in past years, you may remember our Goldilocks scenario: we were either squashing many bodies and instruments into a small computer lab, or fighting chaos in the cacophonous gymnasium during our large group work. In a lucky twist of fate, we inherited a space that is JUST RIGHT for our after-school group work: two flexible and large (but not cavernous and chaos-inspiring!) spaces: the cafeteria and an adjacent classroom.  We use these rooms for our Musical Exploration class (a music theory/composition/improvisation class that Betsy Hinkle and I are co-teaching—more on that in a bit) and two other programming necessities: snack and homework time.

Chittick Boys

A violist, two cellists, and a violinist in the Chittick Cafeteria

Harnessing volunteer power

Speaking of homework: moving private lessons to after school and extending our twice-weekly programming to the late 6 o’clock hour necessitated a study hall and a crew of homework help volunteers. I am happy to report that a small but mighty crew of parents have stepped up to the plate, and have done so with a great deal of skill and finesse. These parent volunteers are not babysitting! They are playing an active role in the children’s studies. One mother even brought in a library of chapter books and a collection of educational puzzles to enrich the kids’ homework activities. One very important message in support of these amazing parents: we still have a need for homework helpers; many parents are working during the hours of our programming and are unable to join in. Our current volunteers could use some back-up. If you are interested in joining the homework help team, please contact us and we’ll discuss!

Refreshing Musical Activities

Enough about structure! Let’s move on to an update about program content.

Musical Exploration is a heartier portion of what we used to call “Music Circle”. We still do rhythm machines and other large-group community-building and improvisation activities during this time (Betsy’s leading that portion of the class right now). But we’re also dedicating more time to hands-on exploration of formal, abstract musical concepts. This semester, our explorations are focused on rhythm. As a class, we’ve been reveling in bouts of “rhythmic show-and-tell”: we take turns sharing rhythms we know from music we love, cool rhythms we feel deeply and genetically in our bones, rhythms we want to dance to and riff on. In turn, we have been making a concerted effort to reconcile our extremely advanced, fluent, funky rhythmic sensibilities with the square notational structures handed down by the Western European classical music tradition. It all makes for an interesting back-and-forth: as I strive in vain to notate their bar-line-defying funkiness to the nearest dot, the kids are exploring how basic rhythmic values can be strung and stacked into phrases, textures, and grooves that we can all enjoy.

Orchestra is probably the most exciting addition to our programming. Our very own Sumner Quartet cellist Laura Messina is one of the best youth conductors I’ve ever witnessed. She is funny and commanding. Her expectations are extremely high and the kids seem more than happy to reach with her. Truly, we (students and teachers alike) are transfixed by her energy and clarity. We are so lucky to have her. Watch for videos from Laura and the Chittick Orchestra in the near future!

julien orchestra 2013

A 3rd grade cellist follows his conductor

Chamber music remains an educational, artistic focus for us at the Chittick. In fact, after last year’s successful pilot of a twice-weekly chamber music class, we decided to make a more intensive dosage this year’s norm for all 3rd-5th graders. Using original Betsy Hinkle tunes and arrangements, traditional rounds, and improvisation as a vehicle, five youth string quintets and sextets are working on the tasks and skills of collaboration, and continuing to create and refine our community’s shared musical language and culture of respect, freedom, purpose, and joy.

betsy and chamber group 2013

A chamber group rehearses the piece “Switcheroo” by Betsy Hinkle


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