.Great Expectations

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

A big sound was coming from the orchestra in the Dalby Room, where more than forty instruments were playing. But conductor Eugene Sor didn’t think they were playing all that well. Sor, the principal cellist of the Stockton Symphony and conductor of a string orchestra in Palo Alto, towered over the musicians, shaking his head. “I like your first note,” he said, “and then I didn’t like any of the rest of them.”

Over the next half hour, this was one of the gentler comments Sor had for his musicians. “What’s your dynamic?” he challenged the cellists. “What’s happening?” he asked rhetorically, stopping the violists after three notes. “This requires you count to four, not three,” he scolded. “Play it again,” he said to the violinists. “A little less sloppy this time.”

Sor’s admonitions might seem intimidating to any musician — let alone a group of middle-schoolers. But these young players didn’t look downcast. They looked focused, maybe even inspired. They sat up straight, and played on. Sor snapped his fingers and stamped his foot.

After the students struggled through the piece, Sor offered tempered praise. “I like the attitude,” he said. “The notes aren’t all there, but I like the attitude.”

At the end of the practice session, Sor (or “Eugene,” as he’s known to the kids) left his pupils with a sentiment they say is typical of his style: “I like you,” he said as they departed. “I just don’t like what you’re doing to the music.” The kids smiled.

Such comments may sound harsh, but they’re routine at The Crowden School, a small middle school in Berkeley that combines academics with a rigorous program in chamber music instruction. While most schools have been forced to lower standards in order to focus on getting students to pass standardized tests, Crowden has done just the opposite — and to positive effect. Contrary to what has become conventional wisdom in education, the students at Crowden don’t melt into puddles when confronted with sharp, direct critiques; they respond.

Later that day, some of Sor’s students said they actually revel in their status as his whipping boys and girls. “When you’re in the fourth or fifth grade, they’re really nice to you, they cut you some slack, but by the time you’re in the sixth grade, they expect more out of you,” said Benjamin Preneta. “But by then, you’re ready for it.”

Serena Witherspoon agreed. “I like it,” she said. “I like when your teachers push you hard. Classmate Sean Woodruff said, “It puts more pressure on you, and for sure you’re going to be a bit more scared. But I know it helps us get to the right place faster.”

No one in the group thought that Sor didn’t like them. Though it was never explicitly said, it seemed that the students know that he does, in fact, like them, but that they have much farther to go in satisfying their conductor, and that is what they’re reaching for. They can do better, and they will if their teacher demands it. Their sense of self appears to hinge on whether they do well. There are no gold stars given out. But it’s almost as if that fact forces them to try harder.

It’s hardly a novel concept, but at The Crowden School, it’s never been forgotten.

It’s possible to drive past The Crowden School without knowing a school is even there. One might assume that it’s part of Jefferson Elementary, its neighbor. But it’s actually part of a bigger complex, Crowden Music Center, home of music lessons, choirs, and concerts. For the past twelve years, it has been the home of a middle school for grades four through eight, originally started by Scottish-born violinist Anne Crowden and currently housed on the corner of Rose and Sacramento streets in North Berkeley.

The Crowden School began in a smaller locale in 1983 with a total of eleven students, and moved to its current location in 1998. It is still small, though that is by design, with room for eighteen students per class (its student body totals 72).

“Our most common musical model here is the ensemble, and that wasn’t chosen accidentally,” explained Crowden principal and English teacher Brad Johnson. “If they don’t work hard, they disappoint the group. We use that same motivation in our classroom.”

Students at Crowden begin their day with two hours of musical instruction, and then continue their school day with what might be regarded as their regular curriculum: math, science, English, history, art, and foreign language. It’s not a music conservatory; it’s a school. Johnson says the academic classes are decidedly not musically oriented. “It’s not like the science of music, or reading about musicians, or the mathematics of music,” he said. “We don’t want that. We expect their classrooms to function as English class or history class. They get enough music.”

Students also are expected to take private music lessons after school at least once a week, and that, too, affects them as learners. “They’re very experienced working one-on-one with adults or in very small groups,” said Johnson. “Of course, that also means that they are far less willing to sit back and take in everything a teacher says if they have a question or comment.”

But why classical music? And why middle school? Lisa Grodin, music director of Crowden, might have asked the same question herself when she was a ten-year-old Berkeley public school student signing up for her first music lesson with Anne Crowden. Grodin, one of several administrators who also teach, said that students in grades four through eight are “uniquely flexible and open.”

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.”

Fukawa says she’s not surprised at the successes her students reach after leaving the school. “The high schools like that our kids think out of the box, that they have a measured perspective of what they can do, a confidence and a work ethic. I love that we get students who play for years afterward.” She says former students get together with friends and still play. “Not just the ones who go onto conservatories, but those that go to law school or become teachers. They form their own ensembles and play. In quartets, everyone takes their turns and has a part.”

Then she moved to the piano and said, “Did you know Beethoven was inspired to write his Eroica because of Napoleon Bonaparte? He thought that Napoleon at the time represented equality and democracy. Beethoven thought that it should be celebrated with a composition that treated all voices equally.” The director started to play for an audience of one. “This is the New World Symphony, the last movement,” she said while ringing the room with music. “It was Dvorak’s and he said it was inspired by this country, which he adopted towards the end of his life.” She played for some time and we both lost track of how much. She looked up when the piece ended and her visitor did, too. “It grabs you, doesn’t it?”

The loveliest room at The Crowden School is the auditorium, which serves as a concert hall, practice room, and dance floor as needed. On the stage on a recent morning was the Lower School orchestra. They were bathed in a yellow light filtered by a high window and catching the dust to create an almost tangible glow.

The fourth and fifth graders were under the direction of Rem Djemilev, who, like many of the Crowden faculty, has a résumé that makes teaching an eleven-year-old to stop waving his bow around seem like using a cannon to take out a house fly. Yet Djemilev’s master’s degree from the Moscow Conservatory and time as a player in the Bolshoi don’t seem to make him too lofty to wait patiently for Maria to find the “A” on her violin.

Tomorrow is the orchestra’s first performance and that will soon be routine for these kids. For the fourteen rookies on stage at the moment, conductor Djemilev will coach them through every step.

“Then there will be applause,” he told his orchestra. “Then I’ll bow.”

He had the students play the piece through and noticed something that he wanted to fix right away. He paused to word the question precisely. And then he asked it with a small smile. “Is Mozart happy or sad here?”

The kids were made bashful by the simple-sounding question. “He’s happy,” one tentatively answered. Djemilev whispered something inaudible back in response. His students grinned and began playing. Djemilev waited for them to finish, which they did with a bit more confidence, and said, “It might be necessary that I will need to bow again.”

Performance is a constant at Crowden. Rarely does a month pass without a public appearance. They play for their teachers, their peers, and their parents. Principal Johnson says that the element of performance is one main thing that stands out at Crowden. “There is nothing else like it,” he said. “Our students, our staff, and our school are measured by it.”

It’s also the one element of Crowden that could be replicated at a large public institution. “When you set a date and a time to be ready and others will be there to watch you, that’s something that anybody can do,” said Johnson. “You have to take it out of the classroom and put it out there. Students will rise to that standard.”

And if they don’t? What if the piece isn’t ready, what if they fail, let their classmates down and perform badly? He shrugged: “Then they will have opportunities to do it again. That starts from the time a student begins here.”

At Crowden, students flub notes on a regular basis; in the beginning, all they make are mistakes. And having mastered a piece of music, they are then rewarded with a tougher piece. An ensemble they work well with is then scrambled, and they find themselves put in with a quartet of students who they haven’t played with. Students have instruments removed from their hands and then repositioned.

Johnson says the link between music and learning is there, but not in the ways that people think. “The Mozart effect?” He shook his head. “I don’t put much stock in that. There’s nothing inherently beneficial from listening to music before entering school. But that doesn’t mean the learning of music has no effect.”

Johnson notes that the students are very good at symbolic language. “They have been working on a language for the past five years by the time they’re in the eighth grade,” he said. Learning an instrument teaches students discipline, he said, and they can work harder with less frustration, or at the very least learn to work through the roadblocks. He says that students practice for hours and have to be dedicated to do well. And their classmates are counting on them. “They’re already experienced interacting with adults and they’re also practiced at making mistakes.”

That flies right into one of the great ironies of contemporary education, according to Johnson. The average middle-school student has racked up years of affirmation and confidence based on validation by teachers trained to provide ten words of praise for one word of criticism. As a consequence, educators have noted that those same students are particularly reluctant to reach out of their comfort zone, or to take chances where they might be less skilled. In other words, students afraid to fail also become afraid to take on challenges.

For fifth-grade cellist Michelle Mao, challenge is what drives her to succeed. She knows that the dynamics differ significantly depending on whether she’s playing in an ensemble, performing solo or in an orchestra. She also knows that she will be paired with different musicians of varying talents and that she has “to be ready to work with whatever music they give me.” She is particular about the charms of her chosen instrument and the discipline it requires to improve.

The most remarkable thing about Michelle is that, at eleven years of age, she behaves as if there is nothing remarkable at all about her life, or having this very conversation. It’s not like the kids at Crowden aren’t silly, or loud, or crude, or immature. They crash into each other in the hallways, show poor judgment about the line between joshing and insulting one another, and think the same things are hilarious that eleven-year-olds everywhere do. But they look adults in the eye and talk about their craft without giggling or lecturing or apologizing.

Sixteen-year-old Niko Durr, a Crowden graduate, patiently explained his attitude toward his viola as opposed to his violin while a rambunctious tag game swirled around us. He laid out some music he had written and tried with patience, sincerity, and enthusiasm to explain what looked like hieroglyphics to his visitor.

Niko, who now plays now with the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra, always loved classical music, according to his mom, Anna Durr. “When we wanted to punish Niko, we told him that he was going to his room and couldn’t listen to any music,” she said. But even after being recommended for the school by his piano teacher, he wasn’t admitted to Crowden as a fourth grader. “We couldn’t pay the tuition anyway,” she recalled. “By the time we reapplied, we had scraped together enough money to get started and when they accepted Niko, I was a stay-at-home mom and did some volunteer work at the school in order to get some scholarship help.”

His mother says that her son’s blossoming at Crowden came from a will that was already deep in her boy. “I played an instrument when I was young, and I played classical music at home on the weekends,” she said. “But I was not prepared for Niko’s obsession. And the school just embraced him. Niko was never an academic scholar, and struggled to match his classmates in core academic subjects, but at Crowden, he just got up there and the stage and performed. His confidence just took off and that resulted in a boy who is not afraid to do new things.” And this happened during middle school. “Niko was constantly performing, always part of a group. I think the teachers there saw what he needed to fill his soul, and they provided it.”

They also provide it for students who are not obsessed with the music they play. Eighth-grader Kalden Gonsar didn’t want to attend Crowden, at first. “I wasn’t really happy,” he said on a recent afternoon among a group of his peers. Some had been in art schools, many had been taking lessons when they applied, a handful were public school refugees, and a number of had never held a classical instrument. Serena Witherspoon auditioned with an electric guitar. Amory Mowrey joined the school in the eighth grade. “I was at a school that was supposed to be about music in the city but I was playing in the orchestra blasting a B instead of a B flat and nobody said anything,” said Mowrey. “I couldn’t get away with that for one bar here.”

The students excitedly described their daily regimen and how it changed them. Kalden, the boy who didn’t initially want to attend Crowden, now describes with great precision how discipline learned in his violin class is paying off in his academic classes. The students are in agreement about how the heavy time commitment has improved their time-management skills. “There just isn’t enough time in the day,” said Sean Woodruff, another student of the class of 2010. “You just have to get more efficient.”

His classmate, Donnealeah Jones, concurred: “The teachers expect you to practice your ensemble piece, your orchestra part, your private lesson, and your regular schoolwork. They expect you to do it all.” She paused. “Somehow, we do.”

It’s the Basically Baroque concert night, one of the significant events of the school year. On stage the violinists glance over to the violist, who nods in the direction of the cellist and the beautiful ache of Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite in D Major begins. The four musicians play the lush movement and the audience literally moves, swaying gently in the direction of the bows. Tonight’s program features sonatas, fugues, motets, and a number of other performances. Even a listener whose vocabulary to describe classical music is limited to “pretty” or “scary” can hear this performance as a little piece of magic. The strings play in pairs and then in unison. There are moments when the music just hangs in the air and then half moments when no music plays at all. The musicians dig in and perform with a confidence that allows audience members to close their eyes, like you might on an airplane flight, confident that you’re in good hands and that the pilot will bring you home safely. The fact that this piece is being performed by musicians who are all of twelve and thirteen years old stops being a conscious thought at analogously the same time that the captain turns off the fasten seatbelt sign.

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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