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Great Expectations

Tough standards turn middle-school students into seasoned chamber music performers at Berkeley's Crowden School.



A big sound was coming from the orchestra in the Dalby Room, where more than forty instruments were playing. But conductor Eugene Sor didn't think they were playing all that well. Sor, the principal cellist of the Stockton Symphony and conductor of a string orchestra in Palo Alto, towered over the musicians, shaking his head. "I like your first note," he said, "and then I didn't like any of the rest of them."

Over the next half hour, this was one of the gentler comments Sor had for his musicians. "What's your dynamic?" he challenged the cellists. "What's happening?" he asked rhetorically, stopping the violists after three notes. "This requires you count to four, not three," he scolded. "Play it again," he said to the violinists. "A little less sloppy this time."

Sor's admonitions might seem intimidating to any musician — let alone a group of middle-schoolers. But these young players didn't look downcast. They looked focused, maybe even inspired. They sat up straight, and played on. Sor snapped his fingers and stamped his foot.

After the students struggled through the piece, Sor offered tempered praise. "I like the attitude," he said. "The notes aren't all there, but I like the attitude."

At the end of the practice session, Sor (or "Eugene," as he's known to the kids) left his pupils with a sentiment they say is typical of his style: "I like you," he said as they departed. "I just don't like what you're doing to the music." The kids smiled.

Such comments may sound harsh, but they're routine at The Crowden School, a small middle school in Berkeley that combines academics with a rigorous program in chamber music instruction. While most schools have been forced to lower standards in order to focus on getting students to pass standardized tests, Crowden has done just the opposite — and to positive effect. Contrary to what has become conventional wisdom in education, the students at Crowden don't melt into puddles when confronted with sharp, direct critiques; they respond.

Later that day, some of Sor's students said they actually revel in their status as his whipping boys and girls. "When you're in the fourth or fifth grade, they're really nice to you, they cut you some slack, but by the time you're in the sixth grade, they expect more out of you," said Benjamin Preneta. "But by then, you're ready for it."

Serena Witherspoon agreed. "I like it," she said. "I like when your teachers push you hard. Classmate Sean Woodruff said, "It puts more pressure on you, and for sure you're going to be a bit more scared. But I know it helps us get to the right place faster."

No one in the group thought that Sor didn't like them. Though it was never explicitly said, it seemed that the students know that he does, in fact, like them, but that they have much farther to go in satisfying their conductor, and that is what they're reaching for. They can do better, and they will if their teacher demands it. Their sense of self appears to hinge on whether they do well. There are no gold stars given out. But it's almost as if that fact forces them to try harder.

It's hardly a novel concept, but at The Crowden School, it's never been forgotten.

It's possible to drive past The Crowden School without knowing a school is even there. One might assume that it's part of Jefferson Elementary, its neighbor. But it's actually part of a bigger complex, Crowden Music Center, home of music lessons, choirs, and concerts. For the past twelve years, it has been the home of a middle school for grades four through eight, originally started by Scottish-born violinist Anne Crowden and currently housed on the corner of Rose and Sacramento streets in North Berkeley.

The Crowden School began in a smaller locale in 1983 with a total of eleven students, and moved to its current location in 1998. It is still small, though that is by design, with room for eighteen students per class (its student body totals 72).

"Our most common musical model here is the ensemble, and that wasn't chosen accidentally," explained Crowden principal and English teacher Brad Johnson. "If they don't work hard, they disappoint the group. We use that same motivation in our classroom."

Students at Crowden begin their day with two hours of musical instruction, and then continue their school day with what might be regarded as their regular curriculum: math, science, English, history, art, and foreign language. It's not a music conservatory; it's a school. Johnson says the academic classes are decidedly not musically oriented. "It's not like the science of music, or reading about musicians, or the mathematics of music," he said. "We don't want that. We expect their classrooms to function as English class or history class. They get enough music."

Students also are expected to take private music lessons after school at least once a week, and that, too, affects them as learners. "They're very experienced working one-on-one with adults or in very small groups," said Johnson. "Of course, that also means that they are far less willing to sit back and take in everything a teacher says if they have a question or comment."

But why classical music? And why middle school? Lisa Grodin, music director of Crowden, might have asked the same question herself when she was a ten-year-old Berkeley public school student signing up for her first music lesson with Anne Crowden. Grodin, one of several administrators who also teach, said that students in grades four through eight are "uniquely flexible and open."

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