This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
About 25 fifth graders at Houston’s Crespo Elementary are sitting cross-legged on the classroom rug, divided into four sections. As they listen to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, one part of the music evokes a large thunderstorm.
Each group represents different instruments in a symphony, which in turn represent different elements of the storm: thunder, lightning, wind and rain. When the music ends, the kids in the rain section are mimicking the sound by slapping their hands on their knees.
Eleven-year-old Johnny Urias volunteers to stand at the front and conduct. It’s his first time playing maestro and admits with a shy grin afterward that it wasn’t easy.
“I’ve definitely noticed that if they can feel captivated by a piece of music and create a story, like a narrative that goes along with the music, that is exciting,” says David Connor, a bassist who was hired as one of the Houston Symphony’s first community embedded musicians over the summer.
Along with appearing onstage at select concerts, Connor devotes a large amount of his time to education and community work. That includes taking part in the Houston Symphony School Residency at Crespo Elementary.
They drew inspiration for the program by something similar that the New York Philharmonic put into place more than 22 years ago. Theodore Wiprud is the philharmonic’s vice president of education. He says success is gauged by looking at how students connect with the music.
“We see behaviors at school that indicate that,” Wiprud says. “The quality of engagement, the way that they remember things from year to year, the way they connect lessons learned in listening, performing, and composing music to other areas of their studies.”
What separates Houston’s program from similar ones is that the two participating community embedded musicians at Crespo are full-time symphony employees, but spend 80 percent of their time in the community and 20 percent onstage playing concerts. That’s an opposite ratio from existing Houston Symphony musicians.
Crespo Elementary principal Auden Sarabia says they’re already seeing the program’s influence. Earlier in the school year, the kids took a trip to Jones Hall to see a concert. Later that day, they were back at school working on an unrelated assignment when a teacher asked them to write sentences using certain words. One of those words was “sit.”
“And students started to write, ‘I sit at the Houston Symphony,’” Sarabia says. “And these are English language learners. English is not their first language. However, the first thing that came to their minds was the symphony and they wanted to write about it.”
Connor says that across the board, he’s seen the kids come out of their shells.
“They compose with us,” says Cecilia Caballero, a confident 10-year-old with long, curly hair who plays the flute. “I feel like they are part of the class.”
All four of the community embedded musicians – David Connor, Jenna Barghouti, Anthony Parce, and Hellen Weberpal – recently gave a concert for the students and their parents at the school. Krista Martinez was there with her 10-year-old son.
“It’s such an important thing that is really kind of left out of school now,” Martinez says. “For the Houston Symphony to come in and broaden the aspects is an amazing program.”
So far, more than 400 students at Crespo have taken part in the initiative. The goal is to expand it to other schools.