Music With a Bang Teaches Pupils Lively Appreciation

While pupils at Point Loma’s Sunset View Elementary School finished their lunches, San Diego Symphony musician Jonathan Szanto unloaded enough percussion instruments to play “The Rite of Spring” and still have a hefty pile of instruments leftover.

For the next two hours in the school auditorium, Szanto interspersed his sonic sampler--the gamut of percussion instruments from drums to orchestral bells--with low-keyed patter about the origins of drums in Africa, cymbals in Turkey, and exotic carnival noisemakers in Brazil.

A three-year veteran of the symphony’s Meet-a-Musician program, Szanto kept his audience, which ranged from kindergartners to third-graders, engaged by maintaining a lively pace and a firm but low-keyed classroom discipline. And although the excitable youngsters were evidently eager for some hands-on musical experiences, Szanto kept them behind an invisible Maginot line in front of the tables laden with his percussion collection with the same deft footwork that serves him well in the orchestra’s percussion section.

“Szanto is one of our most active participants in the program,” said Ron Johnson, the symphony administrator in charge of the program. “I recommend him, especially for the younger students, because his presentation with so many different instruments is visual as well as musical. Each of the musicians in the Meet-a-Musician program writes his own script for the presentation, and Szanto conscientiously continues to refine his program.”


Other musicians who take their instruments to the schools are bassoonist Arlen Fast, harpist Sheila Sterling, horn player Ethan Dulsky and trumpeter Alan Siebert, who also has given presentations for high school students this year for the first time in the program’s three-year history.

Because Szanto previously had presented demonstrations to pupils in the elementary school where his mother worked as a teacher’s aide, he readily volunteered for the program.

“It’s the kids’ reactions that make it worthwhile,” he said. “All you have to do is something simple--hit the Chinese gong--and they immediately respond with a big, wide-eyed look on their face that tells it all.”

Easygoing but brimming with enthusiasm for the percussionist’s art, Szanto encourages the pupils to ask questions about his work.


“It never fails; there will always be an observant student who points out the instrument on the table I’ve forgotten to demonstrate,” he said. “The most unusual question came from a boy who asked me in the midst of a program, ‘Why are you doing this?’ He wasn’t put off by the presentation, but he was unsure why an adult would be standing in front of a bunch of kids blowing whistles and beating drums.”

Szanto also puts in a plug for pupils to attend a live concert, pointing out which of the instruments they most likely would see in a performance at Symphony Hall.

School administrators, meanwhile, admit that these are anything but fat times for music education, so Meet-a-Musician and the educational programs of other local arts organizations provide a necessary supplement to the school district’s minimal programs.

According to Kay Wagner, fine-arts program manager for the San Diego Unified School District, the district’s entire instrumental music program for elementary school’s is taught by 11 music teachers spread over 110 schools. The bands and orchestras trained by these teachers are made up of only selected students from each school.


“These teachers meet each ensemble but once a week, which means they have a load of 500 students--a bulging enrollment,” Wagner said.

There is no choral music, except in places where regular teachers volunteer their time to rehearse one, and there is but one district specialist in general music.

The remainder of elementary music instruction falls on the discretion and talents of the individual classroom teacher.

Sunset View school does receive a weekly visit from one of the district’s instrumental instructors, and during the fall a faculty member works with a school chorus for a holiday program given each December.


But PTA member Sharon LaRocco was not satisfied.

When she learned of the symphony’s program, she quickly found the money from other interested parents to bring it to Sunset View, where her son Christopher is a kindergartner.

“Since the fourth- through sixth-graders attended a San Diego Symphony Young People’s concert, we were eager to bring in this program for the younger students,” LaRocco said. “The fee was only $50, of which half was supplied by a grant from the women’s auxiliary of the symphony.”

According to Johnson, the auxiliary’s grant money is applicable to the first presentation of a Meet-a-Musician at any school, an incentive to get a school to try the program.


After observing two of Szanto’s presentations, LaRocco said, she was determined to make certain that her PTA put funds into its next budget for a return performance.

Szanto’s repertoire proved engaging to even the youngest Sunset View pupils.

After working through the various drum families, he pulled out his more exotic demonstrations, producing a high-pitched whine by drawing a double bass bow along the edge of a cymbal, blowing his shrill police whistle and mounted car horn, and simulating a bit of champagne music by popping his cork popper.

He identified with his pupil audience, admitting that he, too, still is learning to master the instruments of his trade.


“A percussionist has to find lots of ways to make sounds out of each instrument, which is why I’ve been taking lessons for the last three years with an expert conga drum player,” he said.

Szanto discovered that the Sunset View pupils were not exactly innocent about the tools of his trade.

When he picked up a large pair of cymbals, the pupils cowered and put their hands over their ears. He teased them by playing a very soft flourish. Then, having won their confidence, he gave them a resounding “Star Spangled Banner” finale crash.