By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Students gasped with joy and began to sway as the music notes of “Be Our Guest” filled Madison Elementary School gymnasium Thursday afternoon.
Norman Public School music teachers performed and demonstrated each instrument in an attempt to recruit fifth graders to the district’s free elementary orchestra program.
Orchestra music teachers conducted school visits to all 17 NPS elementary schools this past week to give students a taste of orchestra music. The orchestra program has been around since Jackie Dillon established it in 1966. Every year the elementary orchestra brings in about 200 to 300 fifth-graders, said NPS director of fine arts Brad Benson.
“This year I think we’ll have numbers in the high 200s sign-up again,” Benson said. “Sometimes the kids stick with it all through school. Other times, the orchestra leads them to other fine arts programs, and we’re happy about that, too.”
The elementary orchestra allows students to pick their instrument, learn to read music, perform in front of an audience and immerse themselves in the classical genre. Students who participate receive instruction during the school day, four days a week.
Students may choose to play violin, viola, cello or string bass. Parents are responsible for providing instruments. Not only will students have the chance to perform for their own school, but they also will perform in a spring all-city concert at the University of Oklahoma.
Jean Statham, co-conductor of the Norman High School orchestra and elementary orchestra teacher, said she continues to want to teach fifth-graders because she feels what the music program does for the kids is so important.
“The kids get to play from their hearts. They gain so many skills from this program,” Statham said.
Elementary orchestra teachers Kay Kirtley, Mark Osborn, Steve Waddell, Dawn Thrailkill, Kay Jenkins, Marty Dalton and Brenda Wagner agreed with Statham and said they all saw various skills improve in elementary orchestra participants over the years.
“Playing in the orchestra builds kids’ self esteem. It improves their listening skills and more,” Waddell said.
In an attempt to keep classical music modern and fun, orchestra teachers rapped about the program and proceeded to play excerpts of songs like “The Pink Panther Theme,” “Under the Sea,” “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the “James Bond Theme” and the OU fight song. One student, Rishi Mathew, was even selected spontaneously to learn “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and perform it in front of all his classmates.
“I was nervous, but when it was over, I was happy,” Mathew said. “I will think about the orchestra...my favorite instrument was the violin.”
Benson said watching Mathew play was a great opportunity for all of the students to realize they could do it too and that joining the orchestra isn’t so intangible.
Students’ excitement about the orchestra seems to have just begun, as every demonstrated instrument was wildly voted for with waving hand when students were asked to select a favorite instrument.
“Oh no, an orchestra completely full of the bass,” Benson joked as the string bass was declared the winner. But if raised hands are any indication, the orchestra will be full of every instrument and many NPS fifth-graders.
For more information, call NPS fine arts at 366-5870.