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Finding musical talent at low-income Seattle schools

On Thursday afternoons at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School, music lessons are everywhere you look.

Woodwinds twittering in the breezeways. Violas plucking out pizzicato notes in the kindergarten room. And trumpets blaring in this tutoring space, where fourth-grader William Si Luong wraps up a tune with his tutor Arnie Ness.

"You know this! This is good," Ness smiles proudly.

"Yeah!" grins William, then reaches into his trumpet case for his music book: the "hard stuff."

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Private music lessons are otherwise out of reach for many children at Bailey Gatzert, where almost all the students are low-income. It's one of four Central District elementary schools where Seattle Music Partners brings afterschool instrumental lessons twice a week: one-on-one tutoring the first day, band or orchestra practice the second. The program is funded by grants and private donations.

Executive Director Scott Gelband says they chose to work at Gatzert, Leschi, Madrona and Lowell because they're feeder schools for Washington Middle School and Garfield High School, renowned for their outstanding bands and orchestras.

Seattle Music Partners started in 2000 after founder Marnie O'Sullivan, who had two children at Garfield, "observed an unfortunate cultural and economic divide: between the students that you would see at the schools in the hallways, and those you would see in the band and the orchestra rooms," Gelband says.

The secondary school music programs tend to be dominated by wealthier, white students – despite the schools' diversity.

To help even the playing field, the organization pairs volunteer music tutors, both adults and local high school students, with more than 100 fourth- and fifth-graders. The kids choose from the usual range of instruments, many of which are donated, and borrow them for the school year. The students also get loaner music stands, music books – everything they need to practice at home.

How did William pick the trumpet?

"Because it only has three valves," he says, as Ness laughs.

"For instance, clarinets and flutes have lots of buttons, so I can’t figure out which ones to press," William continues. "And I’m not sure I can play the cello or the violin."

Is the trumpet as simple as it looked? "It’s really hard at first, but as I keep on learning, I can play the scale! Like this," William said, blowing a perfect C-major scale.

Down the hall at Gatzert, fourth-grader Lynisha Bailey is in her first year on the flute. "My cousin, she inspired me, because she’s a really good player. And I also think it sounds good." She smiled.

Lynisha’s tutor, Kimberly Morrison, is also in her first year with the program. Morrison started playing the flute when she was Lynisha’s age, and said that after playing on and off for years, it’s been fun to now be a teacher – especially for Lynisha.

"She is so naturally talented that she can pretty much memorize any song immediately when she plays it. It’s incredible," Morrison said. She realized that after Lynisha learned to played "Ode to Joy" upon hearing it once.

"Then there was another song that I thought she might like to play for a performance. I played it for her," Morrison said. But she didn't have an extra copy of the sheet music. "I asked if she wanted me to print it for her, and she said, 'No, I’ve memorized it' – and she played it at a recital the next week."

Performances happen all the time in this program, even during snack time. Students then discuss what they liked about their peers' performances.

Katoya Palmer’s son Kamron is learning the saxophone at Madrona K-8 School. She says music lessons are teaching Kamron more than an instrument – he's learning responsibility and attention to detail.

"He’s finally, at the end of the school year, gotten into the routine of making sure he remembers his instrument, practices every day, holds himself accountable for making sure he’s correct," Palmer says. "I don’t see that in other subjects, so I would say that this is great."

And she says it’s been wonderful to see Kamron discover his musical abilities. "It’s been amazing. It’s been somewhere he can excel. He did a solo at the very first recital, which made me very proud," Palmer said. "It’s a different experience from the different things we’ve done, such as sports. This is where my son’s been able to break through with a talent."

Right now, students at all four schools are practicing for the year-end concert.

"I’m not sure why, but I might be a little nervous," William says. "Our concert is at someplace called 'Town Hall,' and I don't know where that is!"

But Seattle Music Partners head Scott Gelband says this might be his favorite time of the year.

"When it comes to performance time, the real magic is apparent in the smiles of the kids when they’ve finished a piece, or the stir within the ensemble after the conductor lowers the baton, and they realize that they’ve just nailed it."

The Seattle Music Partners year-end concert is 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 9 at Town Hall. Admission is free.

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