Take a child barely out of diapers, plunk him down in front of a piano and watch those little hands fly. Granted, the tune may sound more like coins in the Cuisinart than Beethoven's Fifth. But to his ears, it's fine music.
Merle Valdez understands that. Director of the Merle Valdez Studio of Music since the mid-1950s, she has spent her career channeling youthful passion into a lifelong appreciation of music. On Friday, her students will be among the 250 local musicians ages 3 1/2 to 17 who are appearing in the Orange County Youth Celebration of Music annual concert at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. Proceeds from the concert will benefit Children's Hospital of Orange County.
Valdez coordinated the event to "showcase young performers and give them an opportunity to give something back to the community." Last year's concert, held at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, attracted 1,200 people.
Valdez sees such public concerts as one way to expose young audiences to the performing arts in an era when traditional music programs are on the wane.
"I read recently that California has the lowest music teacher-to-student ratio in the country," she said. (A study by the National Commission on Music Education does, in fact, rank California dead last. California public schools average one music teacher to 1,535 students versus first-ranked South Dakota's 1-to-151 ratio.)
That's particularly bad news for elementary school pupils, said Valdez, because "if you don't start them young, they're never going to get it."
To demonstrate that point, Valdez will open Friday's concert with 10 pianists ages 3 1/2 to 7 performing a collection of American and French folk songs. All the youngsters have been trained under the Suzuki method, a procedure developed by Dr. Shinichi Suzuki.
"Dr. Suzuki was convinced that children at age 2 or 3 could study music successfully, because they have very sharp ears," Valdez said. "They can learn to pick up music by ear without having to read notes." The process is called the "mother tongue" approach because it mimics the way children learn to speak by imitating their parents, added Valdez.
The Suzuki method has an impact beyond the keyboard as well, said Valdez. "His philosophy is building a noble character through music. Meaning that music educates the whole person, physically, mentally, spiritually and socially."
Karine Merrifield, a Costa Mesa High School senior who is one of the concert's featured performers, agrees. A piano student since the age of 7, she says her studies have taught her "discipline, perseverance and patience (and) how to pick yourself up when you've failed." Merrifield, who soloed with the Saddleback Symphony Orchestra at last year's OCPAC performance, will play a two-piano arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with 17-year old Andrew Yang.
Friday's program also includes Hayden's D Major Concerto performed by seven pianists ages 12 to 17 backed by the Capistrano Valley High School Orchestra, choral works from the 85-voice St. Anne's Catholic School Choir and Mozart's "Ariette," danced by five ballet students ages 5 to 7 backed by eight young pianists. Featured guest performer is 14-year-old Michi Wiancko of San Clemente, performing Partite No. 3 by Bach.
What: Orange County Youth Celebration of Music Annual Concert.
When: Friday, May 3, at 8 p.m.
Where: St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrews Road, Newport Beach.
Whereabouts: From Newport Boulevard (southbound), turn left on 17th Street, right on Irvine Boulevard, left on 15th Street to St. Andrews Road.
Wherewithal: $3 to $5.
Where to call: (714) 545-5438.