03/05/2013 - News

Swift, Waters Join CSO Rivers

By Citizen Musician

Teachers and administrators at Swift School in Chicago were joined yesterday morning by members of the CPS Department of Arts Education and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a discussion of the ongoing Rivers Project, an interdisciplinary learning program of the CSO’s 2013 Rivers Festival. The Rivers Project has combined elements of music, art, history, social studies, and ecology, bringing together teachers and students from different curricular areas, and from different parts of town.

One point of emphasis in the discussion was the way the project builds a community of interest around a  single idea. "Once you have all these people working together on the same idea from so many angles," said teacher Amy Vecchioni, "they use the vocabularies from the different parts of the project in varied applications, and that kind of practice is how you really learn a body of ideas deeply." Vecchioni teaches at Waters School, which has partnered with Swift School for the Rivers Project.

Swift School principal Harlee Till underscored the part of administrators in making something like this work. "It's ISAT testing time right now. When I came to the teachers with this project, they asked me, 'Do you really think we can do this?' You have to say yes." Principal Till has been working with her staff, as well as with CSO administrator Jon Weber, to pull together the required resources. "Opening our door to the CSO, that's a very small thing for me to do as a principal. But I have to say 'yes' to the whole endeavor from the beginning, and that's my advice to other principals - just say 'yes' and then be prepared to do whatever you have to." Rossero and Plummer contributed the perspective from the Arts Education Department. Getting Swift and Waters school to collaborate with the CSO, "all takes leadership," Rossero said. "Part of our job is to help teachers get out of a feeling of isolation."

CSO vice president for artistic planning Martha Gilmer ended the discussion by thanking the schools for welcoming the CSO into their work. "My husband is a teacher; I know how teachers are constantly teaching towards tests and working to satisfy countless metrics, and we at the symphony also have to deal with measurable delivery. But the young minds of students are unmoved by the pressure of deliverables; they learn through their passionate attention, and fostering this passion is where a symphony and a school can acheive a lot together."

This conversation was only a prelude to the day's main event: students from Swift and Waters schools presented their rivers projects before a large audience. There were original musical compositions inspired by visits to the Chicago River, riparian family histories (in one case, revealing a common tie between two students to the same river, the Rio Almendares in Cuba), and an experiment that used grains of rice to model the impact of waste in the Nashua River of New England. A Civic Orchestra string quartet performed an arrangement of the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony, a piece that, in the words of Civic violist Jonas Benson, "is full of the sounds of nature and water, and of thankfulness for nature," and to conclude, Yo-Yo Ma performed a movement from Bach's cello suites, encouraging students to imagine how the music evokes images of water. The responses he got after performing - that kids had imagined everything from "rain falling like little pebbles" to being tossed about in a flood - underscored what CPS and the CSO hope to achieve by working together: getting students to imagine and re-imagine the essential relationship they have with water, and to their own Chicago river.

Photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013.

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