Dec. 3, 2008

CU Winds join Philadelphia schools in musical outreach

More than 60 student musicians in the Cornell Wind Ensembles (CU Winds) rehearsed and performed with young instrumental music students in the School District of Philadelphia in November. The three-day music education and outreach project featured the donation of 10 instruments to two Philadelphia middle schools.

The project was coordinated by Matthew Marsit, Cornell's assistant director of wind ensembles, who has ties to Philadelphia -- he taught at Drexel University and studied at Temple University, where he met Dennis Creedon, currently the school district's director of comprehensive arts education. Creedon's office was created to revive arts education and offset cuts to arts programs in Philadelphia schools, Marsit said.

"We knew very well that a positive momentum had been growing for arts education in Philadelphia public schools," he said. "We've seen a wonderful growth of programs at these schools."

On Nov. 17, Director of Wind Ensembles Cynthia Johnston Turner, Marsit and 65 members of CU Winds worked with 55 student musicians from Grover Washington Jr. and Russell H. Conwell Middle Schools at the Philadelphia school district administration building. Cornell students led the younger students in seven breakout workshops grouped by instrument or orchestra section, and then sat side-by-side with them in a joint rehearsal -- preparing for an evening concert at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), intended to promote music in the schools.

"It is a great benefit for our children to have you not only as mentors, but as role models," said Virginia Lam, a music content specialist for the district's School Reform Commission, introducing Cornell at the concert.

A "Grand Band" of university and middle school students performed Cornell graduate composer Stuart Duncan's piece "On Time," which was commissioned for the occasion. The piece, conducted by both Marsit and Johnston Turner, involved parts played simultaneously by two sections of the combined ensemble.

"The musicians play different material, so that they are never on time or in time," said Duncan, who was inspired in part by a memory of the cacophony of young musicians in school practice rooms.

The concert also featured fanfares by CU Winds brass players positioned on three sides of the audience in the school's small auditorium; and four Cornell players accompanying the Washington middle school drumline on "When the Saints Go Marching In." CU Winds also performed Cornell songs, among other pieces.

The Philadelphia project is an extension of CU Winds' outreach mission in Costa Rica, which brought more than 150 instruments, cultural exchange and instruction to schoolchildren during concert tours there in 2006 and January 2008. Some of the larger instruments given to the Philadelphia schools were originally collected for the second Costa Rica trip. ("Music is the gift that keeps on giving," Johnston Turner said.)

After presenting the instruments at the CAPA concert (including a cello, a trombone and an electric guitar and amplifier), the Cornell group was given an oversized thank-you card signed by the Philadelphia students and educators.

"The opportunity for us to be here with young and enthusiastic musicians is really remarkable for us," said CU Winds president Colette Kopon '09.

The next day, CU Winds visited Grover Washington Jr. Middle School for a schoolwide assembly and concert program. The Washington school -- named for the late jazz saxophonist who settled in Philadelphia in 1967 -- has seen its music programs grow from 30 students to more than 200 students in the past two years, and Conwell is a nationally recognized magnet school, band directors Frank Machos and Robert Fitzgerald said.

CU Winds is seeking support and donations for their outreach projects. For more information, contact Johnston Turner at cpj6@cornell.edu or Marsit at mmm326@cornell.edu.