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May 28, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

How we can get in concert to enrich our children

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Christopher DeVargas

17-year-old percussionist John Melton performs a solo with the Las Vegas Philharmonic during the Youth Concert Series at The Smith Center, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.

Youth Concert

Taras Krysa conducts the Las Vegas Philharmonic during the Youth Concert Series at The Smith Center to an audience of 4th and 5th graders from schools all around the valley, Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Launch slideshow »
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

When you go to the Las Vegas Philharmonic’s Youth Concert Series and the music starts, you don’t want to watch the stage. The real action is in the audience, where many of the 1,600 fourth- and fifth-graders fancy themselves amateur conductors, waving their imaginary batons and urging on the musicians.

This year, about 13,000 students will enjoy one of eight concerts, for the first time at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts’ Reynolds Hall, our beautiful new concert space. The philharmonic works with the Clark County School District’s music teachers to prepare the students, many of whom come from our most impoverished schools.

Conductor Taras Krysa, music director of the Henderson Symphony and director of orchestras at UNLV, was perfect in his role as Seussian musical guide in his Russian-accented English.

“The great thing about music is it tells you the story without showing you. You use your imagination,” he said from the stage.

He then led the students on a tour of a diverse array of music. He asked them to listen for the squeaky wagon wheel of Grofe’s “Grand Canyon Suite.” The fast ending means “we have arrived in Las Vegas,” he said.

Then it was Ravel’s “Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête” from “Mother Goose Suite,” which is the conversation between Beauty and the Beast. When he announced it, a tiny murmur swept through the crowd. The beauty, he explained, is the clarinet, while the beast is the bassoon. When the bassoon played, he said: “Even I’m scared.”

The students were sometimes enraptured, sometimes squirmy and distracted. So it goes.

When it was over, Krysa said: “See, sometimes soft music is better than loud.”

The highlight, though, was when they wheeled out a marimba and John Melton appeared. He’s a senior at Las Vegas Academy who won a competition to be soloist for the day’s two youth concerts.

He played the second movement of Sejourne’s “Marimba Concerto,” having spent about 150 hours preparing.

The marimba is a percussion instrument capable of pitch. The player holds two mallets in each hand, striking the marimba to blend different sounds. I know nothing about the marimba, but Melton sure looked and sounded like a bad man — by which I mean a virtuoso — as he played.

Melton, who hopes to study at the highly regarded music program of the University of Hartford, said he purposefully chose a piece that would require not just technical proficiency but also feeling.

“I’m trying to convey emotions without using words,” he said afterward, echoing what the conductor said about music telling stories without language.

Most of us understand what they’re talking about. We can hear a snippet of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or perhaps the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” or Phish’s “Reba,” and be flooded with memories and emotions, a tide of ineffable meaning that language never can fully capture.

Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists are puzzled by music’s universality — all cultures have it and and most of us derive some meaning from it even though it’s not clear why.

The benefits of music for the brain are becoming clear, however.

A 2007 article in the journal Nature Neuroscience posited that music’s effect on the brain could explain musicians’ “higher language-learning ability.”

University of Kansas professor Christopher Johnson has found evidence that students in quality music education programs score significantly better on standardized math and language tests than their peers in weak or non-existent programs, regardless of socio-economic status. It’s not hard to see why — music requires and thus helps develop memory and the ability to process different information and brain functions simultaneously.

Ever notice that so many of the highest achieving students are also musicians? This is not coincidence.

Dr. Charles Limb, associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University, is using brain scans to show that playing music literally changes the architecture of the brain.

The point here is that music education isn’t some fluffy extra. It should stand right alongside reading, writing and math.

According to school district spokeswoman Melinda Malone, at about 205 of 217 elementary schools, students receive 50 minutes of music education per week.

No doubt music is a victim of the relentless standardized testing regime that places a preponderance of focus on reading and math and proficiency tests.

There is no requirement for music education in grades 6-12, but, about 80,000 students — roughly half — participate in band, choir, guitar class or mariachi.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s sufficient.

Kudos to the Las Vegas Philharmonic, which added two extra concerts this year, at a cost of roughly $200,000 to pay musicians and rent the Smith Center.

Still, even with the extra concerts, the philharmonic had to turn away 21 schools.

The philharmonic’s annual gala is Friday at Caesar’s Palace. Much of the money will go to funding youth concerts.

For information, call 702-258-5438.

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