Great Expectations 

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

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Which is not to say that the music training has no influence over their class work; it is the soundtrack to the day. Grodin says that, developmentally, becoming involved in music at this age was important for her, and is to her young charges. "The students at this age are ready for a real challenge," she said. "They are beginning to develop the ability to do something that they won't 'get' right away, and that it's not going to be equally easy for all of them. Most schools never throw out that challenge."

Grodin says that a music education teaches delayed gratification, which for ten- to fourteen-year-olds is exactly the right time to introduce that concept. "Being frustrated and to still keep working, that's what they learn here," she said. "It's tough for them. It's tough for adults, too."

There's a stereotype that middle-school students have all kinds of energy and most of it is pointless. Grodin knows that they're pubescent and, as a result, driven to focus on mostly adolescent impulses. But she says schools need to tap into those drives, and believes Crowden has found a way to do so. "They're emotional and that's going to come out one way or the other," she said. "Music gives them a more creative and I think satisfying way to express themselves."

Grodin speaks of her own learning as a time of incredible growth. "There was brain development, motor skills, and discipline, and that was huge, but what I came out with, and what we want our students to walk out of here with, is a kind of grace no matter what direction their lives take them," she said. "Anne said it and we stand by it; we're not out to create virtuoso musicians, we create virtuoso children."

Crowden Music Center Executive Director Doris Fukawa uses sports metaphors to explain the setup at The Crowden School, at times describing a certain configuration as "like a football team, with everybody having their own routes to run," or illustrating an example by saying, "you can't play HORSE by yourself." Like a coach, Fukawa expects not every effort will result in success, but that there are scoreboards for a reason. "You either catch the ball or you don't," she said in reference to performance arts. She also has a piano in her office, which she uses to punctuate some of her points.

Like most Crowden teachers, she remains a musician, playing freelance gigs with local orchestras. Unlike most, she didn't have a background in chamber music. "I was a typical Berkeley school kid," said Fukawa, who grew up in the Seventies. "No Shakespeare, no Latin, no museums." Luckily, she connected with Vince Gomez, who led Berkeley High School's chorus and directed her to Anne Crowden, who was then making a name for herself developing young musicians. "These were adults putting their faith into our generation of music, dance, and art," Fukawa recalled. She was assisted by scholarships that paid for lessons and instruments. "I wanted to play and I was fortunate to find people willing to take a chance on a no-pedigree person like myself." After getting comfortable with some solo work, Fukawa was put into a group. "That's where my learning really took off," she said. "I learned to listen. I learned to work as a team. That was the training that we do here."

When Anne Crowden relinquished day-to-day control of the school a decade ago, the institution suffered what Fukawa described as "a crisis of leadership" that resolved when she returned from her traveling musical career to take the reins. "I knew management and I knew the institution," she said. "I wanted us to be an East Bay presence, and a resource as well."

Fukawa pushes Crowden students into musical service, playing at ribbon cuttings, civic ceremonies, and, in the past two years, in choruses throughout the Bay Area. "I want us to be multi-talented and I want us to stand out," she said.

And what would Anne Crowden, who died in 2004, think of her namesake school today? "I think she would be happy," said Fukawa. "I think she would be proud to see that our school demographics are looking more and more like the whole Bay Area. I think she would be pleased that we are still surviving and flourishing, and developing a regional presence." Then she paused. "But she would recognize our struggles, too. How do we maintain our financial stability? Is it sustainable when there are so few students who grow up with classical music? How do we prove to those outside our school community that an education in chamber music is relevant?"

Like her mentor, Fukawa measures success not in the number of professional musicians who emerge ("maybe 2 percent will eventually be pros," she said) but how they emerge as people. "Music forms relationships," she said. "The music is greater than the individual, and that's not a real popular 21st-century notion." Fukawa notes that the seventh- and eighth-grade classes go on tour every other year in the summer, performing concerts. "You see how adults and other kids grasp onto them. They can't believe that these kids produce this magnificent thing. And that's when it hits our kids. We really touch people."

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