Most composers that fourth-grade students at John Kerr Elementary School in Winchester learn about have been dead a long time. Their music has survived hundreds of years, but young students will never know what the musicians were really like.
That’s why Principal Nan Bryant said it was so exciting to meet famed musician Wynton Marsalis.
During a Thursday afternoon fourth grade assembly, 22 students in the Orff Ensemble, a West African drumming ensemble named for German composer Carl Orff, had the chance to learn from Marsalis.
“I think it’s something that they’ll never forget,” Bryant said. “I mean, a worldwide legendary musical composer they got to actually meet face to face. Hopefully that will inspire them to either pursue their own music or just follow music as something they love.”
Marsalis, a nine-time Grammy-winning trumpet player, led the workshop in partnership through Shenandoah Conservatory, where he is completing a three-month residency.
On Feb. 4 at the Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland, the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Marsalis’ “Blues Symphony.”
Thursday’s hour-long program began with a quick performance by the Orff Ensemble, before Marsalis talked and laughed with students.
He discussed the importance of musicians listening to each other, keeping time and using breath control — even percussionists.
It was an incredible, surreal experience, said music teacher Ryan Stitcher, who was thrilled when he had the chance to provide a beat on a school bongo drum during a spontaneous trumpet performance by Marsalis.
“You don’t expect someone of his caliber to come here, but his commitment to just public education and arts is peerless,” Stitcher said. “He is at like the top of the pyramid of American musical icons, and yet he just cares so much, it’s great.”
When preparing his students for the assembly, Stitcher told them to be ready for anything, and they were.
Singling out students to answer questions or to perform on the spot, Marsalis showed them how music is an imperfect, evolving art.
Sure, they can mess up their parts and cause a domino effect of screw-ups, he said, but they should also revel in the good feelings that happen while performing music.
Remember, he said, “Not that we messed up, but the feeling of ‘We’re playing this together.’ What about that feeling?”
Asked what she likes about playing the contra bass marimba, 9-year-old Samantha Stevens told him, “That I can just rock it, and I hope everybody likes what I played.”
“Once you get into the beat, it’s really easy,” she said.
The partnership with area public schools happened after Washington Performing Arts approached the university with the idea of bringing Marsalis to Winchester for a short residency, said Associate Dean of Graduate Studies Karen Walker.
Asked how the students would benefit from the program, she said, “Our expectation is just the experience that they get this wonderful opportunity to learn from a man who’s a legend.”
All students at John Kerr Elementary take a weekly music class, and fourth graders can choose to be part of a chorus that meets after school. The Orff Ensemble, which teaches students to play by doing, is an audition band because it can only support about 20 students. Stitcher said he chose 22 this year so more could participate.
“I try to put them into a position to succeed,” Stitcher said.
The two extra students didn’t have a part written for them in Thursday’s performance, so Stitcher encouraged them to write their own.
The parts they wrote included a cymbal, a drum and musical ratchet — requiring a complicated sequence of timing that intrigued Marsalis.
They have to count beats and pay attention to ensure they’ll play at the right time.
“Music means in many ways a mastery of time,” Marsalis said.
“One of the greatest things that music teaches you is how to listen to other people.”
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org