So it should not surprise me that watching the mesmerized faces of fifth-grade boys and girls from Farmin-Stidwell Elementary School in Sandpoint last spring would bring tears to my eyes. After all, Maestro Gary Sheldon and an outstanding ensemble of 14 regional classical musicians were playing the powerful first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as part of a special outreach concert brought to the school by the Festival at Sandpoint. Even teachers and the school principal, Ann Bagby, looked amazed.
Reaching more than 800 fifth-graders in Bonner and Boundary counties, including home-schooled students, the goal of the educational outreach program is to foster an interest in listening to and playing music as students advance into sixth-grade band or choir.
Verne Windham, director of the Spokane Youth Orchestra and classical music host on KPBX Spokane Public Radio, as well as one of the French horn players in the ensemble, provided some context for the music before the orchestra played.
"Beethoven took four notes and turned it into everything important he wanted to say with this music by having every individual in the orchestra say something important," Windham explained to the students, while musicians demonstrated with their instruments. When the oboe player stepped forward and said that she hadn't said everything she wanted to say, Windham invited her to continue playing. She blew a very long clear note, taking everyone's breath away.
With the proper context set, the ensemble performed the entire first movement of Beethoven's monumental composition built around those famous four notes: da-da-da-DA.
The students also learned something about music making from the perspective of soloists. Caitlin McSherry of Sandpoint played a portion of Beethoven's violin concerto. She is concertmaster with the Outreach Orchestra as well as with the Spokane Youth Orchestra and a superb violinist who attended the FAS Outreach Program in Sandpoint as a home-schooled student several years ago.
Of all the instruments in the orchestra, the Farmin-Stidwell fifth-graders especially seemed to enjoy the woodwinds, featuring Rhonda Bradetich on her solid-gold flute and smaller wooden piccolo, along with 16-year-old Jim Sandberg, a home-schooled student from the Spokane area and a very talented clarinetist and composer.
Sandberg also introduced the students to the concept of variations on a musical theme with several of his own orchestrations. Using Beethoven's "God Save the King," he involved every member of the ensemble. Students recognized it as America's version of the music, "My Country 'Tis of Thee"; but they likely never heard it played quite the way young Sandberg orchestrated it. He garnered huge smiles and enthusiastic applause when soloing with his lively clarinet while the string musicians plucked their instruments pizzicato behind him.
Sheldon also entertained several intelligent questions from the children about music-making and conducting, and could have answered several more had there been more time, but the class period was nearly over. So he concluded the concert by inviting six boys and girls to join the orchestra team on a variety of percussion instruments. They followed the conductor's lead perfectly playing the rhythm and beat while the orchestra played Beethoven's "Turkish March."
Tammy Belzer-Gunter, music teacher at Farmin-Stidwell, was elated. "Most of these kids only hear classical music through radio, TV or CD, and for them to be engaged in a live performance is so awesome," she said.
The Festival at Sandpoint hopes the students will share that awe with their parents and other family members, so that listening to classical music becomes a family affair. To encourage them, the Festival board members presented a voucher to each child redeemable for three free tickets and additional reduced-fare tickets to the Festival's August 14 Grand Finale Concert at Memorial Field along Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint. It will feature Sheldon conducting the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and, of course, Beethoven's remarkable Fifth Symphony.
Verne Windham wagers that these 50 minutes with Beethoven planted many musical seeds that will surely grow. "We have a multi-age orchestra -- and that includes kids who were sitting in these various schools eight years ago as fifth-graders who are now brilliant, young musicians in the Spokane Youth Orchestra or in college. So we have the complete continuum -- from listening to the music to making the music to becoming great artists -- all happening in one place."
As for me, coming full circle with the musical experience, it was like being a kid again.