UMass Lowell program music to the ears of city kids

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online. By SUSAN McMAHON Sun Staff

LOWELL The mad rush for instruments begins soon after the recorded music stops.

Everyone has to come up with something,' UMass Lowell student Richard Wohl told his group of Lowell fourth- and fifth-grade musicians. 'Something like the music we just heard.'

Suddenly, the room is filled with the chatter of voices laden with the clatter of a tambourine, the banging of drums, the chiming of a xylophone.

The feast of sound goes on and on, giving way to structure after a few minutes of chaos.

For the students, it's a way to learn music, to let it flow from the fingers rather than struggle over imitations.

For the teachers, all students in UMass Lowell's music studies program, it's a way to help youngsters get excited about music.

Creative Sound Play, an offshoot of the UMass Lowell String Project, aims to take the absorption of music one step further, bringing it into the realm of the creative rather than the imitative.

'Some students are still grasping the idea of 'I can make my own music. I can do whatever I want,'' said Matthew Bilz, a UMass Lowell student. 'They're really taking this the extra mile.'

The program began as a way to further ingratiate students from the String Project, UMass Lowell's collaboration with the Lowell public schools, into the idea of music. In the String Project classes, students use their violins to create the notes of songs like 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'

With Creative Sound Play, the music itself emanates from the students. They focus in on creativity and improvisation.

'Just the String Project only gives you one side of the music. Where's the improvising? Where's the composing?' Bilz said. 'We're helping the students to open up more doors in their brain.'

But the benefits don't stop with the students from Lowell public schools. The UMass Lowell students, all of whom plan to go into teaching, are learning the basics of methods and pedagogy in a classroom environment.

'Before they do student teaching, they have real, live classroom experiences with the kids,' said Gena Greher, the UMass Lowell professor organizing Creative Sound Play.

'It's just made such an impact on what we're learning this year,' added Wohl.

With percussion and string instruments covered, and the beginnings of improvisational techniques taking root, what comes next?

A music video, of course.

The students soon plan to begin shooting their own video with their own music. It's an idea that crosses borders between the classical music of the String Project and the hip-hop and rap music they hear on MTV.

'It's gonna have hip-hop, rap and jazz,' said 10-year-old Savanny Soy. 'It's very cool.'

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .