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Norwalk Plus magazine : Norwalk Plus Fall 2008 Published: Aug 29, 2008 - 1:16:33 AM

Sound development

By Nancy T. Maar

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Norwalk schools boast one of the finest music-education programs in the state. When many other school systems are cutting, or eliminating music from their curricula, Norwalk remains committed to supporting music in the schools. And then, there are the Norwalk Youth Symphony and Chamber Group Orchestra, the Norwalk Jazz Festival plus renowned church choirs - Norwalk’s notes are vibrating strong.

Music is wonderful for child development in myriad ways. “Norwalk children,” according to Jeff Smith, Leader of the Norwalk High School Band, “are started with general music in kindergarten. They sing and play simple instruments. In the third grade, those who are interested are encouraged to start learning to play an instrument.” The school will rent or loan a violin to the family of the child.

By the sixth grade many Norwalk public school children are playing and singing in their school’s orchestra or choirs.

A typical product of this nurturing system is Danielle Jellerette, 17, a senior at Norwalk High and her brother, Taylor Jellerette, 14, a freshman at the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering, an interdistrict magnet school in Stamford.

In third grade, the Cranberry Elementary School encouraged Danielle to start playing the violin. Her parents rented the instrument. Three years later, Danielle joined the choir. The teachers at West Rocks Middle School discovered Danielle’s superb, opera-quality mezzo-soprano voice with great range and expression.

Her parents, Diane and Troy Jellerette were astounded to find their daughter had such a talent. At 17, Danielle clearly sees the benefits of music education, beyond the obvious opportunities that it creates.

“Music has helped me to be focused and analytical. I have to analyze each piece of music and understand how the elements come together,” says Danielle. She joined the school orchestra in the ninth grade and the school chorus last year. She also has played and sung in school musicals.

Danielle and many other Norwalk kids have taken advantages of the many resources of this community. They sing and dance in many local theater groups - one of which is the Musical Theatre of Connecticut (MTC). Artistic Director Kevin Connors of Norwalk, has created a unique program which is now national. It prepares kids for bachelor’s degrees in performing arts. Their Westport-based program draws many from Norwalk. The MTC also trains kids for Broadway, movie and TV careers.

“The kids in our productions are amateurs,” says Connors. “Our coaches, orchestra, costume and set designers are all professionals. It’s all about artists teaching young artists.” He points out that learning to perform in a small group, 12 kids per class, is an individualized, confidence-making approach. Shy and fearful kids really come out of their safety zones and learn to love the limelight,” he says.

It’s a fact that children who are involved in musical education tend to do better in school and on tests than kids who are not exposed to music. Studies show that music develops the areas of the brain that are used for reasoning and language.

Another musical advantage for 30 Norwalk youngsters is the group of Choristers at St. Paul’s on the Green.

“Most of the kids in the choir are not from St. Paul’s, the choir is open to all. And it’s a very diverse group, diverse racially and socio-economically. It’s hard to imagine any kid that wouldn’t fit in to the choir. They learn teamwork and self-worth by participating in a joint effort that is highly approved of and applauded,” said Choir Director, Vince Edwards.

Travel is another great advantage of many youth groups – they get to play and sing all over the world. Last year the St. Paul’s choir toured England, performing at various churches and cathedrals.

“The choir is, for many kids, a safe haven, it’s one place where they fit in. Music adds fun and teamwork to life. They do their math and English by themselves. A choir is a team. Every summer we take them to Choir Camp for a week. There, they do some singing and a chance to bond. During the year they are always rushing from school to practice to other activities,” explained Edwards.

This January St. Paul’s Choristers will perform, “Amal and the Night Visitors” with Danielle Jellerette singing the lead role, replacing the professional adult who sang it two years ago. “Amal is a full-scale opera,” says Vince Edwards, “it’s just much shorter, lasting 50 minutes.”

The discipline required by a music education builds excellent students. Last year, Danielle attended a business program at Dartmouth for three weeks over the summer and loved it. She plans to major in business and minor in music when she decides on the right college.

Danielle’s brother, Taylor Jellerette, also started playing the violin in the third grade at Cranberry Elementary School. He is now so accomplished that he is trying out for the Norwalk Youth Symphony – one of the biggest Norwalk institutions that take local kids, interested in music and give them a chance to propel themselves into this art.

The Norwalk Youth Symphony is divided into four sections by age and ability with four professional conductors and 230 kids. They not only give concerts but also go to concerts, to further help them in their love for music. The best young musicians from the symphony also have a change for worldwide exposure and success—last year they played on tour in Budapest, Prague, Vienna and Salzburg.

Norwalk High and Brian McMahan High School also have great opportunities for aspiring young musicians – they have stellar bands that perform at ball games and march in parades. “The kids get a trip every other year to perform at a bowl game,” says Norwalk High’s Band Director Jeff Smith.

Smith points out that nurturing every kid is important. “The one who is struggling may end up being more successful than the one who takes to music naturally. So, we nurture them all knowing that all will get something good from their involvement in music.” An intensive band camp takes place every August to shape the kids up for the fall season.

Smith is proud that Norwalk High has nurtured, developed and encouraged many young musicians who have made music their careers. “We now have graduates singing and playing on Broadway!”

Robin DeJesus, a Norwalk High School graduate was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in “The Heights.” He also played Angel in “Rent.” Another Norwalk HS graduate, David DeJesus (no relation to Robin) plays woodwinds in the orchestra pit of “The Heights.” Also from Norwalk HS, Alix Quirage is in “Wicked” among other local kids who are performing all over Broadway

Local organizations also pitch in to support young musicians and music programs. Herb Grant founder and director of the now two-year-old Norwalk Jazz Festival employs the annual event to raise funds for music scholarships. This year, $2500 was awarded to Benedict Vetter, a Norwalk High School graduate who played in the High School band. Vetter, who plays jazz and classical trombone, was accepted at four colleges and universities. He’s taking his trombone and scholarship to the University of Michigan where he will pursue his passion for music.

The Festival also brings professional musicians to Norwalk kids for master classes, helping the young to learn how to feel and sense the music. And, when the building containing all of Norwalk High’s band equipment, instruments and costumes burned down, Grant’s organization jumped in with $2000. This started the fund-raising effort to replace the loss.

This fall and winter, thanks to the musical background given by the Norwalk public schools, hundreds of proud parents will attend a rich variety of performances. There will be concerts, symphonies, musicals and an opera, among other musical events - all performed by the amazingly talented, and busy, young people of Norwalk. The schools of our city are truly committed to giving a sound beginning and a good chance for a harmonious life for our kids.

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