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The Boston Sunday Globe (October 24, 2004)

Music gives students a window to the world

by Richard Dyer
Photograph by Lane Turner

WALTHAM - Musical activist Jane Sapp sat at the piano, playing chord progressions as she spoke about a time in her youth when she couldn't go to school with white kids, when she drank from a water fountain reserved for people of color, when she couldn't use the bathroom reserved for the white folks.

Addressing a roomful of about 125 fourth-graders from Waltham on Monday, Sapp said, "How many of you think that was not so cool?," and every hand flew into the air. Then Sapp began to sing an old spiritual in a rich, gospel voice, "This little light of mine - I'm gonna let it shine." Soon every child in the room was singing it too. "I can't hear you," Sapp said. "Make me believe you," she implored, so they did.

The occasion was the first program this season of Music UnitesUS, a series of special concerts for Waltham schoolchildren coordinated at Brandeis University by Judith Eissenberg, second violinist of the Lydian String Quartet, in residence there.

The subject Monday was freedom songs from America and from South Africa, and Sapp was joined onstage by Stompie Selibe, a South African activist, musician, and performance artist who talked about the struggle to end apartheid and the role music played in it. Standing at the mike, Selibe played South African instruments like the thumb piano, the mbira; when he clicked his tongue and cheeks, wriggled his uvula, and growled in his throat, he sounded like a whole percussion section. He distributed instruments to all the children - drumsticks, plastic eggs filled with sand - and soon they were beating out the rhythms and along with him were shouting "zakhe!" - a South African word meaning "build yourself up." Slosberg Recital Hall was jumping.

MusicUnitesUS is a product of what Eissenberg, 48, smilingly calls a "midlife crisis." After her daughter, Lily, was born 6 1/2 years ago, Eissenberg was surprised to discover that she was learning at least as much from her baby as she was trying to teach her. Inspired by this, she went through Brandeis's teacher-training program and did 400 hours of student teaching in the Waltham school system, bonding with students, colleagues, and the whole process of learning.

She emerged from this experience wanting to develop a program that would show youngsters how much music has meant in the lives of individuals and whole societies; it was also a way of passing along what music has meant to her personally.

Her idea was to produce a series of concerts that would use the resources available at Brandeis to show how music played an important role in articulating the issues in many of the events students learn about in their social studies and history classes. For each program she prepares a study guide as a resource for the teachers and as a way of focusing on what lies behind and within the music. This year, too, she met in a special workshop with the teachers.

Last year she raised about $3,500 for this new program, mostly from Brandeis; the Waltham school system contributed about as much in busing costs. There was a pilot season of three programs last year; this year there are again three, each performed two times, and about 1,000 Waltham children are attending. In addition to the freedom songs, there are programs featuring music from the Silk Road and a performance by the musicians, singers, and dancers of the ensemble Peru Negro.

Eissenberg is a thoughtful, spiritually oriented woman who becomes a firebrand when she picks up her violin - or when she speaks to children. Introducing the freedom songs program, she said, "People who weren't white noticed that there was a different set of rules for white people; they noticed they weren't getting the same stuff. So what did they do about it?" The children seated on the floor knew all the answers. "Stand up for yourself." "Change the rules." "Go on strike." "Fight." One of the children also knew what music meant during the struggle for civil rights. "It was like a code."

Eissenberg feels a "huge chasm" has opened up between the arts and the rest of the curriculum - in part because the arts no longer play a prominent part in schools. "Everything is about separation. We have divided things up so that we can study them and understand them, but it is just as important to explore the spaces in between. Music has gotten pushed off into a little niche; it can be a comfortable niche, but I would like to participate as a musician in all the things that life is. That's why I have been writing the lesson plans myself, although I am perfectly aware that other people could do it better than I can. And I know I can't do anything by myself - I really need the help of the teachers in the Waltham system."

MusicUnitesUS is still on a "learning curve," Eissenberg admits, and that's the way she likes it. Last year the same group of students came to all three programs; this season, each program is adapted to a different age group. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Last year the Lydian Quartet gave one of the programs; Eissenberg doesn't want the series to become a showcase for herself, but wants to define a role for classical music within the general world-music spectrum of the whole series.

She doesn't want to spread out into other communities, except as an example; the involvement of Brandeis in a project focused on Waltham is important to her.

"What I would like to do," she said, "is help create one model of how to integrate the arts into the curriculum in a meaningful way. I don't want to create entertainment days for the children."

Alice Shull, principal of the Fitzgerald School in Waltham, reports that the interest and enthusiam of the children lasts beyond the rush of the concerts. One of them wrote last year, "Thank you for the people who came to Brandeis all the way from Africa. We learned that people wanted the slaves to forget about their cultures, but they used their music to remember."

Shull says, "We knew from the beginning this was a great idea, so the issue for the school was how to make it all work, to have the greatest gains in all ways for the most kids. Here is Brandeis offering to do this for us, so we want to make the most of it. Last year, on the bus, less than half of the kids had ever been to the university, which is right in the middle of their own town."

Monday's children did seem thoroughly entertained by the freedom songs event, which also left them with food for thought. Sapp gave them a new stanza for "If you're lookin' for me, I'll be sittin' up there [in the front of the bus]" that some children had written with her. "If you're lookin' for me, come on over to the White House," she sang. "I'll be president then." The way the kids sang it, it sounded like an "amen" chorus.

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