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Bach to School

Chamber Festival Musicians Play the Classics for Young Students


As classical music lovers go, this was an anxious crowd.

Some had been counting down the days for this event. Many boys wore carefully pressed dress pants. Girls donned pretty skirts. And when the hundreds of spiffed-up elementary school children packed into the Ventura Theatre on Wednesday, they were not disappointed.

A brass quartet took the stage and blasted out a few favorites: some jazz classics, a little Bach, and, fittingly for this group, the theme to "The Flintstones."

"Oh yes," said Greg Smith, executive director of the Ventura Chamber Music Festival. "They really like that one."

The students were taking part in a three-day series of concerts that will have been enjoyed by an estimated 2,000 students across the county when it ends today. The performances are meant to offer up a sampling of the music offered during the festival, running through Sunday.

The festival is in its sixth year. And with each presentation, festival organizers take time to play for some of the county's youngest music lovers--third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students. True, most of them are more accustomed to listening to Britney Spears and 'N Sync, but trombone player Rob Frear says that's the point.

"If they're never exposed to this kind of live music, how will they ever catch the fire," Frear said.

The mini-concerts are part of a year-round effort by music festival organizers to introduce children to classical music, hoping to spark an interest they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Private donors cover the roughly $20,000 annual cost to send polished musicians into classrooms throughout the county or put concert tickets in the hands of talented youngsters learning to play an instrument. The highlight of their programs, however, is the three-day concerts.

Smith said his organization tries to make up for school budgets that in past years often had little left over for arts and music programs.

"We believe the arts are a life-enriching experience," Smith said. "Unfortunately, our government at every level has decided it's not important. So we want to reach out to the kids and give them this opportunity."

It was an opportunity for which fourth-grade teacher Nancy Horwick was grateful. Horwick plays Mozart for her students at Saticoy School in east Ventura while they draw and write.

"It's gotten to the point where they ask for it," Horwick said. "They notice when it's not on." So when news came that they would hear some of the music they've been learning to appreciate performed live, they were delighted, Horwick said. She tried to prepare them on "concert etiquette," filling them in on important details like how they should dress (no T-shirts) and when to applaud (after each piece is completely finished).

And as the music began, Horwick's students and hundreds of others in attendance Wednesday listened with the attentiveness teenagers getting an MTV fix. Most, however, had a hard time articulating what they liked about the music.

"Um, well," stammered Vincent Kroll, a 10-year-old with a smattering of freckles. "It's calm. It's easy to sleep during."

Still, Vincent had heard enough to know he wanted to play one of those shiny instruments displayed on stage, even if he didn't know the name of the darn thing. "The long one," he said, moving his arms up and down as if working a slide trombone. "That's what I want to play."

The performers took time out to talk to students, explaining the physics behind the musical notes. A long tube produces a deep, baritone note, explained Frear, as his colleagues blew through a long hose and created the sound of an elephant howling in the wind. Then they blew through a series of smaller hoses, creating ever-higher pitched squeaks.

The audience giggled with delight, especially when the seasoned musicians used the collection of tubes to play a short tune. When the quartet opened the floor for questions there were plenty.

Does it tickle when you blow the horn? Did you have to buy your own instruments? Where did you first learn to play? Have you ever heard of Dizzy Gillespie? From the stage, the musicians patiently answered them all, hoping they were passing on a love of music they've known all their lives.

"It breaks my heart to know that in the fifth grade most of these kids won't get the chance to learn the music like I did," said Marty Fentone Frear, Rob Frear's wife, who plays the trumpet in the quartet.

"I mean, not everyone likes sports," added trombone player Ken Kugler.

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