Local Arts

2 Charlotte middle-schoolers are classical music pioneers

Justice Crawford and Nathaniel Nitkin are the first students from Winterfield Elementary’s collaboration with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to audition and make it into Northwest School of the Arts. Could this program offer more students from the high-poverty school a path to success?
Justice Crawford and Nathaniel Nitkin are the first students from Winterfield Elementary’s collaboration with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra to audition and make it into Northwest School of the Arts. Could this program offer more students from the high-poverty school a path to success? mhames@charlotteobserver.com

Sometimes you grab a cello, only to realize it has grabbed you back. Sometimes you pick up a violin and find it has picked you up out of your old life and shown you a new one. Justice Crawford and Nathaniel Nitkin have begun to figure this out.

They’re sixth-graders at Northwest School of the Arts, the first young musicians to move to that public magnet school out of a long-running experiment sponsored by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra at Winterfield Elementary.

For the past six years, the CSO has taught after-school classes to kids in grades two through five at the east Charlotte location, where more than three-quarters of the students come from low-income homes.

Now, with a full-time CSO staffer assigned to oversee school programs, the symphony will crunch data to learn whether this training also does the nonmusical things it’s meant to do: cut down on absences and behavioral infractions and improve study habits and grades.

That wasn’t an issue for Justice and Nathaniel. The former was a schoolwide Math Bee winner and cross-country runner at Winterfield, the latter a Chess Club competitor and an artist. In their case, music had a different result: It enabled them to avoid middle schools their parents didn’t want them to attend and launched them on a path that will provide a lifetime of pleasure and – who knows? – maybe a job in the arts.

“I would love to see him go on to play in an orchestra someday,” says Endora Crawford, Justice’s mom and a flutist herself. “But having him in a class where he flourishes, a class he enjoys – that makes the whole school day more attractive. That’s the main thing right now.”

“As he adds technical skills, he’s showing more confidence all around,” says Neil Nitkin, Nathaniel’s dad and a former multi-instrumentalist. “He’s better able to concentrate on what’s in front of him, both the musical and nonmusical stuff. It makes a big difference.”

That’s the kind of talk Courtney Hollenbeck has hoped to hear since she founded her first music program at Winterfield in 2007. (She has taught there for 11 years.) She was using a violin in second-grade science class to illustrate concepts of pitch and volume when a student said, “It sounds like angels.” That inspired her to start the rudiments of an orchestra. By the 2009-’10 school year, she had personally bought 30 violins for beginners and asked the symphony for help.

“I wanted students to have an experience outside of just coming here and going home,” she recalls. “As a girl, I had lots of opportunities: sports, Girl Scouts, traveling on vacations with my family. My students didn’t always have that.”

Formal music education starts in middle school in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system. So Rosemary Furniss, wife of CSO music director Christopher Warren-Green and an accomplished violinist, led a cadre of teachers who came to Winterfield to teach after classes were over for the day. The school now offers instrumental training in strings, wind and brass, as well as a “bucket band” where kids practice percussion with drumsticks and empty 5-gallon paint buckets.

The revolution begins

The goals were simple, yet profound:

▪ Teach kids to take responsibility for something of value, giving them a sense of ownership in the program. (They are allowed to take smaller instruments home to practice.)

▪ Encourage cooperation by placing them among children they might not otherwise know.

▪ Teach practice habits that become valuable study habits in other subjects.

▪ Expose them to arts experiences they might not get any other way.

Attendance has fluctuated over the years. As CSO director of education Chris Stonnell notes, Winterfield began to offer other after-school programs that competed for attention, and he had to replace music instructors in 2014-’15 who cycled out after four years of teaching.

“Winterfield has a transient population, and we struggle with that,” he says. “Not a lot of kids go there for four straight years. But this year, we’re working with 82 to 84 students, we have a school programs manager on our staff” – new hire Phoebe Lustig – “and we are gathering data to find out how the musical group compares with (the school as a whole).

“We look at the musical component, but it’s also about the community component. It’s about getting parents who may never have come to the school before to participate in the process.”

Adds Lustig, “The teaching focus has shifted to 21st-century life skills. It’s not necessarily about making professional musicians. The goal for elementary kids is getting them involved in music for however long they have, even if it’s just for a few weeks. One child came for a short time and had to leave because the family got deported.”

Finding gems in the rough

Erica Hefner, who teaches Justice and Nathaniel in her sixth-grade string class at NWSA, says she sees Winterfield as a potential pipeline for her school. She has taken beginners but is moving toward experienced players, and she can tell in a 10- or 15-minute audition whether she can polish a candidate.

“I need them to hold the instrument correctly, to have some semblance of good tone and to articulate why they want to attend Northwest,” she says. “Everything else, I can fix when they get here.”

A visit to her class this month revealed the kind of apparent chaos yet actual concentration that happens when a room full of 11-year-olds prepares Christmas music. Yet neither of the Winterfield graduates seemed flustered. Nathaniel sat quietly, practicing a cello solo amid the hubbub. Justice, approached by a noisy pal, put up a hand solemnly to ask for privacy as he worked out a passage.

“Nathaniel brings a lot of positivity to the room. He’s all smiles every day,” says Hefner. “Though he auditioned on violin, he’s turning out to be quite the cellist. He never bats an eye, whatever you ask him to do.

“Justice takes music very seriously. He wants to audition for the Junior Western Region Orchestra (of the N.C. Music Educators Association), which gives a concert in April in Boone. He sees music as something that can take him a long way.”

‘Forever’ instruments

Yet until recently, music was something both students found on YouTube or a download, not something to play. Justice had never picked up a stringed instrument before coming to Winterfield two years ago, nor had Nathaniel before joining the music program a year before that.

Students there use the first year as an exploratory process to find a “forever instrument,” as Hollenbeck calls it. Justice flirted with the clarinet and cello before selecting a violin. (He now also takes private lessons out of school.) Nathaniel enjoyed the trumpet but found that piercing high notes rang painfully in his ears, so he switched to cello and violin.

“When I started, it actually looked easy, but I knew it would get tougher and tougher,” says Nathaniel, whose eclectic tastes range from Elton John to country musician Alan Jackson to film scores. “Practicing is a pleasure: I’m always trying to get a song perfect, so I’m playing 15-20-25 minutes a day, plus working on my keyboard. It’s a big step for me, going to a school where almost everything you do is (related to) the arts.”

Why the music matters

Justice recalls the adage of violin teacher Shinichi Suzuki: “Practice only on the days you eat.” (In other words, daily.) He tries to stick by it and finds that this philosophy helps in other ways: “I didn’t always do my homework as well as I should have, and now I know (better). I have started reading more, too, and I like it. What I have learned from music has gone over into my other classes.”

The two musicians will get extensive coaching at NWSA: Stonnell says that, in addition to the school’s own resources, the symphony provides 220 hours of coaching each year there in orchestral, band and chamber music classes.

“There are obstacles to coming here,” says Hefner. “Not all kids are ready for auditions. Parents have to get children to shuttle stops (for buses); that doesn’t always work if both parents have jobs, or it’s a single-parent family.

“But we want to build a bridge with Winterfield that brings more students here, where we can give them musical continuity. They might get lost in the shuffle elsewhere. Then we’ll never know how good they could really be.”

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Trying to measure success

It will take “several years” to assess long-term progress, says Chris Stonnell, CSO director of education: Ideally, educators would collect data from kids who stay in the program from second through fifth grades. That’s especially hard in schools such as Winterfield, where kids leave often.

What’s measured now:

▪ Musical skills: Students get pre- and post-assessments and do self-evaluations.

▪ Academic/school progress: Academic scores, disciplinary referrals, attendance and comparisons to the whole student body.

▪ Community/social impact: Concert attendance and student retention, plus qualitative data such as feedback from parents, staff and other community members.

Other cities have similar programs: Stonnell mentions KidzNotes in Durham and OrchKids in Baltimore. But he notes that both are significantly larger, use multiple sites and are rooted in a different kind of training system.