Great Expectations 

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

Page 5 of 5

The four students will be part of a small orchestra later this evening, but this moment feels bigger and more personal. The kids have been given the stage and the evening. The adults who raised them and those that have been teaching them give them this moment alone. They've been left a significant task; their success or failure depends on their ability to pick up each other's cues, to watch their neighbor's movements, and to be listening with a focus, a concentration, and a stamina that gives hope to the possibility that there may yet be a better way to teach young people, and it might look like this, and it might sound like an aria.

The skills that Crowden students develop sound like those that we expect middle-school students to master but never challenge them to do. The Crowden School doesn't always get mastery, either. But it does drive students toward a standard that most find desirable for their children. The kids grow familiar with the concept of repetition, not to prepare them for a life of drudgery and routine, but to be able to work at a task until it is honed and improved. The kids also work on listening, not so that they become order-takers and passive but so that they can hear the results of their own efforts and become more sensitive to those they work with.

Their concentration skills pay off everywhere. Elite high schools in the East Bay gobble up Crowden grads. The students also make a connection to something larger than themselves. Classical music is the beat of Crowden School. In our times, it is more of a niche product than a definition of an educated person, but it carries with it something deep and important. At this impressionable age in their lives, students spend hours imprinted with the sounds of centuries; complex and demanding, it seeps into their souls.

The quartet finishing the Bach piece shines from its accomplishment. The musicians may never become professionals; they may neglect and abandon their instruments, or even turn away from the music itself. But inside them, the work lingers. Alice Eastman, the violist, looks at her quartet as its members shuffle past her. "When the bell rings at school," she said, "I want to harmonize with it."

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