At Portland school, music and learning go hand in hand

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PORTLAND — For students at a city elementary school, subjects like math will now sound like music to their ears.

Kindergartners at Reiche Elementary School are participating in a music immersion program, as part of a partnership between the school and the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

The goal is not to create more musicians, but to instill a greater appreciation for music, and to incorporate music into the curriculum. The PSO reached out to several schools, and after a competitive application process, Reiche was chosen.

“I think there was a feeling that kindergarten curriculum would be a really good doorway to incorporating more music, where you have singing and chats, and the curriculum lends itself to musicality,” lead teacher Kevin Brewster said.

Music integration is being gradually layered into the classroom at Reiche.

The first thing implemented was music in the morning; the day begins with a piece of classical music provided by the PSO. Students are also exposed to music throughout the day as a learning tool. For example, when the kindergartners are in writing class, a piece of steady background music might play to help keep students focused.

“You really want them to stretch, and having that music as a soundtrack helps them to concentrate and stay focused,” Brewster said.

“It’s definitely growing,” Rose Kue, education and community engagement manager for the PSO, said. “We’re giving it room to grow as a collaborative process.”

The school will also host a musician-in-residency program, where two violinists from the PSO will come in and use music as a way to teach lessons. The instruments themselves will also be used as writing prompts for the students.

The PSO also gave Reiche glockenspiels and chimes, which Brewster said he uses to “manage transitions.”

“So if I want to get my class’ attention, I don’t yell, I just play a couple notes and everybody freezes and looks,” he said.

Additionally, the students will put on a “kinder-concert” series at the school, and will go to Merrill Auditorium for PSO events. Kindergarten teachers have also been taking ukulele lessons.

Brewster said there is a lot of flexibility with the program, because with kindergartners “a learning moment will present itself and you just have to run with it.”

The school’s music teacher is also on board. Brewster said if the kindergartners are learning about apples and pumpkins, the music teacher will have the students singing songs about apples and pumpkins. Brewster said this ensures the music and the curriculum are cohesive.

“It’s reinforcing concepts and things that we’re working on in class,” he said.

Brewster said it’s important to get music into the classrooms because it helps keeps students dialed in. He said the program is important because music has “been squeezed out” by state mandates for academic subjects.

“You’re kind of getting a two for one: kids are getting that music exposure, but it’s also getting them the curricular things that they need,” he said.

Brewster said this isn’t a case of subtracting time from other subjects for music, but it’s an addition, and that students exposed to the arts, or musically fluent, often are better prepared academically.

“Music is a universal language and this is a great way to get arts into the curriculum,” he said.

The hope is that the program will eventually extend not only to all grades at Reiche, but to other schools in the city.

“We would love to see it expand, but we’re not sure how it will yet,” Kue said. “I think it will depend on where the interest is.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Lead Teacher Kevin Brewster demonstrates how to use a glockenspiel with kindergartners Logan Burns and Auyuub Cumar while others look on at Reiche Elementary School in Portland. This is part of a music immersion program at the school, where music is incorporated into the curriculum.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.