“A turkey says, ‘Gobble, gobble, gobble,’ ” a chorus of children sing out, raising their bodies, hands and voices into the air.
Then they sing the line again, only this time the voices fall deep and low as the brood sinks to the ground.
The words, of course, teach about Thanksgiving. But, unknown to these 3- to 5-year-olds, the familiar sounds of the fall holiday were also being used to make them comfortable with a subject that can prove intimidating if approached directly: musical pitch.
The youngsters are in a class called Creative Music for Children, one of about 50 music courses taught each semester at the After School Music Conservatory at Pasadena City College. Teacher Rebecca Rees said she selects particular themes in order to capture children’s interest.
“I always choose songs around a theme because it makes teaching this age group a lot easier,” Rees said. “This season, we are doing Thanksgiving and autumn.”
At other times, the theme might be safety, the circus or the ocean.
“It’s not like music lessons, where they have to practice or sit still and listen to the teacher,” said Bette Solomon, a Pasadena mother who was watching her 5-year-old son, Bodie, during the hourlong music class. “They’re learning a lot about music and having a great time.”
The conservatory has been helping people learn about music since 1973, offering courses on everything from musical theory to chamber music. It also provides instruction in orchestral instruments, piano, guitar and voice. Prices are $7 for an hourlong group lesson and $12 for half an hour of individual instruction.
The conservatory, which is part of Pasadena City College’s Music Department, has a budget of about $40,000 a year--most of which comes from student fees. The rest, about 20%, is provided by the college.
Until about two years ago, courses were available at the conservatory for school-age children only. Now, about 200 students, from preschoolers to senior citizens, take classes there.
“We have been reaching out to a broader base in the community,” said Sandra Ragusa, the conservatory’s director. “This program is accessible to anyone who wants to learn about music.”
Betty Cruver, 65, is taking violin lessons at the conservatory.
“I’ve taken a lot of classes throughout my life, but this one is for fun,” she said, delicately placing a violin made by her great-grandfather back into its case. “This is a prized possession; it would be a shame to let it go unused. Besides, the teacher is very encouraging, even for an old lady like me.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, many of the youngsters in Rebecca Rees’ creative music class didn’t seem quite so eager to learn. But using props, instruments and storytelling, Rees coaxed even the most diffident children to sing and play along.
“The tricky thing for a teacher is to find a way that a melody can be appealing to such a young group,” Rees said. “My goal is to offer them something that is exciting, yet simple enough to be successful.”
Amid the squeaks, giggles, clapping and singing, Rees found some success.
One youngster, 3-year-old Benjamin Steele, spent most of the class period cuddled up close to his mother. “He did absolutely nothing during the class,” said Vicky Steele, whose son was the youngest in the group. “But after we left the class, I put a children’s tape on in the car, and he started clicking with his tongue to the tune of it--in perfect rhythm.”
Unlike stricter music programs, the conservatory has no entrance exams or requirements. Courses are offered at the beginning, intermediate and advanced levels.
“It’s not high-pressure music lessons,” said Tony Capra, a resident of Monrovia who enrolled his 4-year-old daughter, Juliana, in the children’s class. “They’re not trying to teach kids to be virtuosos. Everyone is welcome here.”
Capra said he also enjoys the time spent with his children. “I want them to know who their dad is,” he explained. “It is a special time we have together.”