Great Expectations 

Tough standards turn middle-school students into seasoned chamber music performers at Berkeley's Crowden School.

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Fukawa says she's not surprised at the successes her students reach after leaving the school. "The high schools like that our kids think out of the box, that they have a measured perspective of what they can do, a confidence and a work ethic. I love that we get students who play for years afterward." She says former students get together with friends and still play. "Not just the ones who go onto conservatories, but those that go to law school or become teachers. They form their own ensembles and play. In quartets, everyone takes their turns and has a part."

Then she moved to the piano and said, "Did you know Beethoven was inspired to write his Eroica because of Napoleon Bonaparte? He thought that Napoleon at the time represented equality and democracy. Beethoven thought that it should be celebrated with a composition that treated all voices equally." The director started to play for an audience of one. "This is the New World Symphony, the last movement," she said while ringing the room with music. "It was Dvorak's and he said it was inspired by this country, which he adopted towards the end of his life." She played for some time and we both lost track of how much. She looked up when the piece ended and her visitor did, too. "It grabs you, doesn't it?"


The loveliest room at The Crowden School is the auditorium, which serves as a concert hall, practice room, and dance floor as needed. On the stage on a recent morning was the Lower School orchestra. They were bathed in a yellow light filtered by a high window and catching the dust to create an almost tangible glow.

The fourth and fifth graders were under the direction of Rem Djemilev, who, like many of the Crowden faculty, has a résumé that makes teaching an eleven-year-old to stop waving his bow around seem like using a cannon to take out a house fly. Yet Djemilev's master's degree from the Moscow Conservatory and time as a player in the Bolshoi don't seem to make him too lofty to wait patiently for Maria to find the "A" on her violin.

Tomorrow is the orchestra's first performance and that will soon be routine for these kids. For the fourteen rookies on stage at the moment, conductor Djemilev will coach them through every step.

"Then there will be applause," he told his orchestra. "Then I'll bow."

He had the students play the piece through and noticed something that he wanted to fix right away. He paused to word the question precisely. And then he asked it with a small smile. "Is Mozart happy or sad here?"

The kids were made bashful by the simple-sounding question. "He's happy," one tentatively answered. Djemilev whispered something inaudible back in response. His students grinned and began playing. Djemilev waited for them to finish, which they did with a bit more confidence, and said, "It might be necessary that I will need to bow again."

Performance is a constant at Crowden. Rarely does a month pass without a public appearance. They play for their teachers, their peers, and their parents. Principal Johnson says that the element of performance is one main thing that stands out at Crowden. "There is nothing else like it," he said. "Our students, our staff, and our school are measured by it."

It's also the one element of Crowden that could be replicated at a large public institution. "When you set a date and a time to be ready and others will be there to watch you, that's something that anybody can do," said Johnson. "You have to take it out of the classroom and put it out there. Students will rise to that standard."

And if they don't? What if the piece isn't ready, what if they fail, let their classmates down and perform badly? He shrugged: "Then they will have opportunities to do it again. That starts from the time a student begins here."

At Crowden, students flub notes on a regular basis; in the beginning, all they make are mistakes. And having mastered a piece of music, they are then rewarded with a tougher piece. An ensemble they work well with is then scrambled, and they find themselves put in with a quartet of students who they haven't played with. Students have instruments removed from their hands and then repositioned.

Johnson says the link between music and learning is there, but not in the ways that people think. "The Mozart effect?" He shook his head. "I don't put much stock in that. There's nothing inherently beneficial from listening to music before entering school. But that doesn't mean the learning of music has no effect."

Johnson notes that the students are very good at symbolic language. "They have been working on a language for the past five years by the time they're in the eighth grade," he said. Learning an instrument teaches students discipline, he said, and they can work harder with less frustration, or at the very least learn to work through the roadblocks. He says that students practice for hours and have to be dedicated to do well. And their classmates are counting on them. "They're already experienced interacting with adults and they're also practiced at making mistakes."

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