Great Expectations 

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

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That flies right into one of the great ironies of contemporary education, according to Johnson. The average middle-school student has racked up years of affirmation and confidence based on validation by teachers trained to provide ten words of praise for one word of criticism. As a consequence, educators have noted that those same students are particularly reluctant to reach out of their comfort zone, or to take chances where they might be less skilled. In other words, students afraid to fail also become afraid to take on challenges.

For fifth-grade cellist Michelle Mao, challenge is what drives her to succeed. She knows that the dynamics differ significantly depending on whether she's playing in an ensemble, performing solo or in an orchestra. She also knows that she will be paired with different musicians of varying talents and that she has "to be ready to work with whatever music they give me." She is particular about the charms of her chosen instrument and the discipline it requires to improve.

The most remarkable thing about Michelle is that, at eleven years of age, she behaves as if there is nothing remarkable at all about her life, or having this very conversation. It's not like the kids at Crowden aren't silly, or loud, or crude, or immature. They crash into each other in the hallways, show poor judgment about the line between joshing and insulting one another, and think the same things are hilarious that eleven-year-olds everywhere do. But they look adults in the eye and talk about their craft without giggling or lecturing or apologizing.

Sixteen-year-old Niko Durr, a Crowden graduate, patiently explained his attitude toward his viola as opposed to his violin while a rambunctious tag game swirled around us. He laid out some music he had written and tried with patience, sincerity, and enthusiasm to explain what looked like hieroglyphics to his visitor.

Niko, who now plays now with the Young People's Symphony Orchestra, always loved classical music, according to his mom, Anna Durr. "When we wanted to punish Niko, we told him that he was going to his room and couldn't listen to any music," she said. But even after being recommended for the school by his piano teacher, he wasn't admitted to Crowden as a fourth grader. "We couldn't pay the tuition anyway," she recalled. "By the time we reapplied, we had scraped together enough money to get started and when they accepted Niko, I was a stay-at-home mom and did some volunteer work at the school in order to get some scholarship help."

His mother says that her son's blossoming at Crowden came from a will that was already deep in her boy. "I played an instrument when I was young, and I played classical music at home on the weekends," she said. "But I was not prepared for Niko's obsession. And the school just embraced him. Niko was never an academic scholar, and struggled to match his classmates in core academic subjects, but at Crowden, he just got up there and the stage and performed. His confidence just took off and that resulted in a boy who is not afraid to do new things." And this happened during middle school. "Niko was constantly performing, always part of a group. I think the teachers there saw what he needed to fill his soul, and they provided it."

They also provide it for students who are not obsessed with the music they play. Eighth-grader Kalden Gonsar didn't want to attend Crowden, at first. "I wasn't really happy," he said on a recent afternoon among a group of his peers. Some had been in art schools, many had been taking lessons when they applied, a handful were public school refugees, and a number of had never held a classical instrument. Serena Witherspoon auditioned with an electric guitar. Amory Mowrey joined the school in the eighth grade. "I was at a school that was supposed to be about music in the city but I was playing in the orchestra blasting a B instead of a B flat and nobody said anything," said Mowrey. "I couldn't get away with that for one bar here."

The students excitedly described their daily regimen and how it changed them. Kalden, the boy who didn't initially want to attend Crowden, now describes with great precision how discipline learned in his violin class is paying off in his academic classes. The students are in agreement about how the heavy time commitment has improved their time-management skills. "There just isn't enough time in the day," said Sean Woodruff, another student of the class of 2010. "You just have to get more efficient."

His classmate, Donnealeah Jones, concurred: "The teachers expect you to practice your ensemble piece, your orchestra part, your private lesson, and your regular schoolwork. They expect you to do it all." She paused. "Somehow, we do."


It's the Basically Baroque concert night, one of the significant events of the school year. On stage the violinists glance over to the violist, who nods in the direction of the cellist and the beautiful ache of Bach's Third Orchestral Suite in D Major begins. The four musicians play the lush movement and the audience literally moves, swaying gently in the direction of the bows. Tonight's program features sonatas, fugues, motets, and a number of other performances. Even a listener whose vocabulary to describe classical music is limited to "pretty" or "scary" can hear this performance as a little piece of magic. The strings play in pairs and then in unison. There are moments when the music just hangs in the air and then half moments when no music plays at all. The musicians dig in and perform with a confidence that allows audience members to close their eyes, like you might on an airplane flight, confident that you're in good hands and that the pilot will bring you home safely. The fact that this piece is being performed by musicians who are all of twelve and thirteen years old stops being a conscious thought at analogously the same time that the captain turns off the fasten seatbelt sign.

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