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The Sound of Music, and Change, Reverberates at Esparto Elementary School

ESPARTO – A rare sound is radiating through the sun-drenched grounds of Esparto Elementary School.
It’s the sound of music. And it’s also the sound of change.


The reappearance of a dedicated music education program in this rural town of 3,108 is part of a sea change. Mostly gone are the days when music education was borne solely by school systems. Instead, regional orchestras and music organizations with deep pockets are stepping in.


In Esparto, the impact of the after-school program is telling. Having gone decades without a formal music program, students in Esparto, where organic almond groves are plentiful, are blowing into recorders and bowing violins.


The “Link Up!” program brings together Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, which is providing the curriculum, with VITA, the Sacramento-based Vocal and Instrumental Teaching Academy, which provides teachers and orchestra. Esparto teachers also do some of the teaching, and students supply the budding talent


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A similar program is under way through the Sacramento Philharmonic in the Sacramento and San Juan unified school districts, and the Los Rios Community College District.


Esparto seems tailor-made for Link Up!, given Carnegie’s goal of reaching diverse school systems bereft of music programs.


“For Esparto, the lack of music education has been an issue of both budget and teacher recruiting. It’s hard to get staff to come out this far,” said third-grade teacher Sonya Godinez. “So, I hope this is the beginning of a long, happy relationship.”


The student population at Esparto is 65 percent Latino, and the school also hosts 35 children of migrant farmworkers who reside in the Capay Valley for the spring.


“This partnership developed because I wanted to explore how programs such as this one could impact a rural community,” said VITA artistic director Pete Nowlen. “And as a result the community in Esparto is being engaged with classical music through their children.”


How that is being accomplished has a lot to do with emphasizing the teaching of music in a concert-based setting. Third-graders are learning the recorder, and fourth- and fifth-graders violin and choral singing. What they learn will be performed in Sacramento – with an orchestra.


Thursday, more than 100 Esparto students will perform two concerts at California State University, Sacramento’s Music Recital Hall. There will be a matinee for students and parents. An evening concert will be open to the public.


“This is a completely new model,” said Nowlen.


The Esparto and Sacramento Link Up! partnerships are the first of their kind on the West Coast, with sister programs in places like Buffalo, N.Y. and El Paso, Texas.


“One thing we feel is important to the success of the program nationally is that it be flexible,” said Misty Tolle, director of School and Family Programs at Carnegie Hall. “Each orchestra – wherever they are – knows their community, and we want orchestras to have the opportunity to put their own stamp on the program.”


Indeed, Nowlen has tweaked the program to make it more relevant and interactive, and he has also designed it to be a training ground for a generation of teachers.


In Esparto, that job falls to 23-year-old vocalist Ellen Presley. A singer in Sacramento Opera’s chorus and recent graduate from the CSUS vocal performance program, Presley has been visiting Esparto once a week, for one hour, since January.


Last Thursday, Presley rehearsed three songs for recorder with a group of 50 attentive third-graders. Her efforts are bearing fruit. In the final run-through, the group played their parts cohesively – no easy task for a group of first-time musicians.


“This program is designed to be super-interactive,” said Presley. “It really stresses involvement. Students learn basic tools, like what an eighth note is, and definitions too – like the word ‘ostinato’ ” (a recurring melodic phrase).


One student captivated by the program is third-grader Oscar Moreno.


“It was boring without music here,” said Moreno. “I think learning the recorder is pretty cool.”


Moreno said he intends to continue with the recorder after the school year is over.


What: VITA Academy Showcase
When: 7 p.m., Thursday
Where: Capistrano Hall, Music Recital Hall, CSUS, 6000 J St., Sacramento
Cost: $8-$20
Info: (916) 486-8538;


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Printed by The Sacramento Bee, May 24, 2011.

Posted in: News