Orchestra at the Chittick School

by Betsy Hinkle, director of musiConnects

To be perfectly honest, when I started musiConnects in 2007, having a student orchestra as part of programming was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to truly experiment with the possibilities of making chamber music central to our students’ lives. And I also wanted to ensure that each student received nurturing, one on one relationships through private lessons. Both of these programming components are still rare in public school music programs today but are at the core of musiConnects.


In year 6, we needed to hire a second cello teacher and I met Laura Messina. She came to musiConnects not only with years of teaching and performing experience, but also with a Masters in Music Education, and orchestral education training and experience. Meeting Laura planted the seeds for adding orchestra when the time was right. Image

This fall our Chittick orchestra was born, with Laura as our fearless leader. Since day one she has instilled a new sense of belonging within our students, who are very familiar with their role in a small team through chamber music, but had not yet felt the magic of being in the middle of a large orchestral sound. Her expert group management, rehearsal structuring and sense of humor keeps students focused throughout the long rehearsals which take place at the end of an even longer Thursday.

Orchestra is very popular with our students, and has made Chamber Music sessions even more productive. Our kids are even more aware of the possibilities that collaborative music making brings to their development as young musicians, and as human beings.

I sat down with Laura recently to ask her to share some of her orchestra director tricks of the trade and here is what she had to say:

“I always try and structure rehearsals the same way each time – begin with some warm-ups, usually using elements of the piece(s) we are working on, but by rote so they are not bogged down by looking at music at first. This is when I remind students of all of the possible kinds of conducting they will see from the podium with regard to tempo, dynamics, and simply what each beat will look like. Then I begin rehearsing a piece. I expect silent listening and observation from each student throughout the session, and the kids are pretty good at staying on task and listening for which section, which measure, or other explanations I might call out. I make a point to be as positive as possible when giving feedback, while having very high expectations for effort. I think we are off to a pretty solid start, and there is lots of potential for exponential growth.”

I love looking around at specific students in orchestra on Thursdays. One student who might have been in trouble earlier that day in the classroom, and also might have had a hard time during our snack and homework time, is suddenly giving Laura his undivided attention, sure to sit up tall in his chair and hold his viola with expert posture. Another just started the cello a few weeks ago, and is so excited about being a part of the group that he is beaming from ear to ear the entire hour. And then there are the older, more experienced kids, pointing out which measure we are on to a younger player, and proudly demonstrating how far they have come with hard work and dedication. I love hearing the very beginning sounds of a new piece, too. There is so much potential, so many possibilities!


Community Lessons and Chamber Kids

by Josh Addison, musiConnects resident musician


musiConnects is delighted to announce that the Springhouse retirement community has agreed to host community concerts! Located in Jamaica Plain, the Springhouse boasts an intimate performance space complete with a baby grand piano and a basically guaranteed in-house audience of Springhouse residents. At our first two Springhouse recitals, musiConnects students, Chamber Kids, and the Sumner Quartet performed to a packed house of parents, relatives, friends and appreciative residents.

These Springhouse concerts will afford students further opportunities to meet new faces and to make new friends as students from the in-school programs at the Chittick and the Sumner and those enrolled in community lessons and Chamber Kids come together to perform for one another. At our December recital, Chittick student and cellist Julien Burks dazzled in a performance of French Folk Song, and violist Saniya Antoine shared a beautiful rendition of Rigadoun at our March recital. We hope that many more Chittick and Sumner students will follow in their footsteps!

The Chamber Kids premiered their rendition of End of the Day by Sheila Nelson at the March recital. In preparation for this performance, the students practiced the art of rehearsing. Each student utilized a full score of End of the Day to discover where their particular musical line was primary and where it was secondary as well as where they share melodies or rhythms with other instruments. With these discoveries in hand, they were able to adjust their dynamics so as to achieve balance, to create unified musical shapes and contours, and more generally to open their ears to the complexity and fullness of the music. Just as important, they continued learning how to treat each other respectfully and to work constructively as they express their musical opinions. In making beautiful music these students are honing their social skills!

We hope to grow our Chamber Kids program and to continue to share the wisdom and joy of chamber music with young people. I encourage interested parents to make use of the contact form located on the “Private Lessons and Chamber Kids” tab under the heading “Community.” With enough interest we will be able to create additional Chamber Kids groups for the fall of 2014.

Reflections on my first year with musiConnects and the BPQ

by Cora Swenson, musiConnects resident musician


When I was contacted and offered an interview with the BPQ, I had never heard of musiConnects and had no idea such a program existed in Boston. I began to learn about musiConnects and was extremely pleased to see how well my ideals aligned with the mission of BPQ. I have always seen music as being something far more profound than just learning to play an instrument. The idea that studying music and learning to play with one another can turn a group into a community, and can mold young people into conscientious citizens contributing to that community, is the foundation of my beliefs about teaching. musiConnects embodies just that ideal. I am so grateful to be surrounded by such passionate and dedicated teachers.

The teaching experience has been rewarding in ways I didn’t necessarily expect. I hadn’t had much experience working with children in elementary school; most of my previous teaching was focused on high school aged students. While it is always satisfying to have a student achieve a goal of keeping their proper bow hold through an entire song or correctly sight-reading, the most satisfying and heart-warming moments have been in seeing the students open up to me, begin to trust me, and feel themselves improving enough that they start to set their own goals for music making. Just this past week, a student proudly played me her new ringtone- a movement from a Bach solo suite for cello. She asked me if I had learned it yet, so I played it for her. She looked up at me in awe, her eyes shining, and said “maybe someday I can play that too!”

If I’m being totally honest with myself, I was a bit apprehensive about taking on the task of coaching a chamber group composed of such young kids who were relatively new to playing music. It has been a new kind of challenge for me, and some days and experiments have been more successful than others. But nothing compares to the moment when that group of six young girls finally plays through an entire chorale in true harmony. I once jokingly told the group that it was time for their favorite part of chamber music- packing up. One of them said “no!” very emphatically, and told me that her favorite part was when they played something well all together and I told them how beautiful it sounded. It has also been amazing to see some of them taking on leadership roles within the group, helping each other and learning to give comments in a constructive, respectful and caring way.

Overall this has been an incredible first year teaching at the Chittick and collaborating with my musiConnects colleagues. I’ve learned so much from them and from the students, and I’m proud of what I have contributed to the program as well. I’m very much looking forward to another year and another group of inspiring and stimulating students!


Welcome, Carol!

Here is a message from Carol, Sumner Quartet violinist and newest violin teacher at the Chittick!


Carol and her Tuesday chamber music class at the Chittick School

The Sumner Quartet was formed in the fall of last year, which was the final year of my master’s degree at Boston Conservatory.  Although I was with the quartet from the beginning, due to my school schedule I did not begin teaching with musiConnects until this year.  Two things I really like about being a musician are playing chamber music and teaching, so I am very excited to be a part of musiConnects.

When playing in a chamber ensemble, the more you get to know each other as people and players the more easily you can make music together.  I appreciate the fact that rehearsing regularly as an ensemble allows us to work towards making music in a refined and unified way.  This is particularly important  in small chamber groups as they have no conductor, so listening to each other and reading visual cues becomes very important.  While this is partly just learning to be a good chamber musician, the more you play with someone, the more easily you can anticipate musical choices or read each others body language, which makes it possible to create music in the moment as an ensemble.  While I have played in many chamber ensembles, this is the longest and most consistently that I have worked with a quartet. I am grateful for the positive and respectful atmosphere of our rehearsals because I think it allows our ensemble to grow and develop in a healthy way.  We work hard and accomplish good work, but we also have plenty of laughs!

I love the fact that not only do the students in the musiConnects program play chamber music, they are also encouraged to improvise and compose!  Playing chamber music can be a great way to learn to work with others in a thoughtful and productive way.  Learning to listen to each other, express yourself, and to find a compromise when everyone does not agree are important skills not only for music but also for daily life.  Playing in a small chamber ensemble is an opportunity that is often not available in school music programs, but that I think is a very valuable experience to have. Each voice is important and the music would not be the same if one person dropped out.

Having an outlet to express oneself that is not in words is an experience that I think should be available to everyone, and creating music with others can be a way to connect in a very unique way. I have particularly enjoyed hearing the creative ideas the students bring to class, for example the rhythmic and musical patterns they come up with for the “rhythm machine,” and  having a student come to her lesson and show me a short piece that she wrote during the week for fun.

Including improvisation and composition in classical music programs is surprisingly uncommon.  As a student I wish that I had been encouraged to improvise more.   Opening up that kind of creative outlet alongside learning to read music and playing music by “famous” composers is a great idea.  I have very much enjoyed meeting and getting to know the students at the Chittick.  The fact that the students have a music appreciation class and work in ensembles in addition to their individual studies forms a nice community and a strong foundation for building musical knowledge and developing a love of music.

I feel very lucky to be a part of the Sumner Quartet and musiConnects community!

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

The BPQ at Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music


Jason’s cabin in the woods

From Jason:

After so many stories of chamber music, idyllic cabins, and legendary dances, I was ecstatic to finally get the complete Apple Hill experience this summer.   It delivered on every promise and more.

The friendly, inclusive spirit of Apple Hill was apparent upon arrival.  It’s a refreshing expectation there to take time and make sure everyone is comfortable and happy.  It was also apparent in the friendly, supportive, cross-generational music making.

My cabin was set deep in the woods, which allowed for extreme quiet – the type of quiet rarely, if ever experienced in Boston.   Even for a “city boy” like me, the lack of amenities was overshadowed by incomparable charm.  However, before I went back to my quiet cabin, there were frequent dance parties.  It’s pretty well known that I am a sucker for a good dance party, and in true Apple Hill form, I felt right at home.

Everyone should be lucky enough to experience the magic of Apple Hill. I can’t wait until our musiConnects students are old enough to attend along side the BPQ!

From Betsy:

I first began attending Apple Hill after a friend recommended it to me in 2003. They needed a violist (or violinist impersonating a violist) to fill out a Borodin quartet and I was excited to experience what looked to be a wonderful change of pace from my conservatory training and its aftermath of trying to make a living teaching and playing in Boston. (Interestingly, that same summer I met Marji Gere for the first time, right before she was headed on a Playing for Peace Fulbright to Cyprus!). That first summer, and the following five were incredibly transforming for me as a musician and a person. It was actually at Apple Hill that a rush of ideas flooded my awareness – the idea of chamber music as a model for peace-making and community building paired with an urban string quartet performance and education residency – an idea that leaped out at me from the pages of an article on Community MusicWorks in a Chamber Music America magazine that was floating around the Apple Hill Barn in 2005…

Attending Apple Hill with the Boston Public Quartet was one culmination of the dreams I had had while walking down that tree-lined dirt road. I couldn’t have imagined also attending with my husband, nine-month old baby girl and my mom. I was not only surrounded by my esteemed colleagues while we undertook the challenge of intricately preparing a full quartet program, and surrounded by the amazing Apple Hill faculty who helped us realize every nuance, I was surrounded by everyone I love. I definitely felt a sense of coming “home” when the BPQ played our first notes in the barn.  It felt so wonderful to perform after a meal for the most supportive, diverse collection of musicians in the world, and finally for the Apple Hill patrons who magically transform that old dusty barn into a first-class concert hall by filling it with palpable intensity through their enthusiastic listening summer after summer.

Greetings from the Sumner Quartet!


The Sumner Quartet on a whalewatch!
(From left to right: Liz, Laura, Josh, and Carol)

This year, the musiConnects program at the Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Boston with the help and leadership of Nina Vansuch. The Sumner Quartet is finding that having a stronger presence in the school has really been a positive experience. We have a brand new class of six beginners in addition to the nine returning students from last year, and also a sizable waiting list of interested students! This year, in addition to the private lessons portion of the program, the Sumner musiConnects students are participating in a large group music circle class. They seem to really enjoy working together in the group class to develop chamber music skills and a sense of community. The students have been enthusiastic about the new program, and they have also been extremely responsible about remembering all their materials, and flexible working with schedule adjustments as we settle into a new routine.

There is now a broad range of abilities with the students of musiConnects at the Sumner since adding a new class of students. The first year players are learning proper posture, bowhold, how to create a good sound and are working on plucking the “roots” (a.k.a. the bassline) of Bile ’em Cabbage Down for our first All Play concert of the year this December. The second year players are quickly reviewing where they left off with their teacher last year, playing songs like Hot Cross Buns and The Pickle Song, and moving on to more difficult repertoire. Many of the second year students will be moving to the “stem” (a.k.a. melody) of Bile ’em Cabbage Down for the concert.  It has been interesting seeing the leadership qualities that come out of the second year students in our music circle time together. We are working on keeping a steady beat, cueing and building a strong musiConnects community. This weekly time all together has helped to reinforce skills learned in lessons and create some consistency from week to week.

In May, the Sumner Quartet traveled to the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music in Nelson, NH, for a weekend of intensive rehearsing, and were coached by Apple Hill Executive and Artistic Director, Lenny Matczynski as well as the first violinist of the Apple Hill String Quartet, Elise Kuder, both of whom shared with us a bounty of new musical ideas and ingenious rehearsal techniques. At the retreat and in the months since, the Sumner Quartet has worked to prepare Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59 No. 1, sometimes called the first “Razumovsky” quartet, and will perform two movements of the work at the upcoming Free for All concert at the Mattapan Public Library on November 21. We are also looking forward to collaborating with our colleagues from the Boston Public Quartet in a performance of one of Felix Mendelssohn’s most beloved works, and a piece—astonishingly—that he composed at the age of sixteen: the Octet in E-Flat for strings.

-Laura Messina, Liz Stefan, & Josh Addison