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Oakland Symphony keeps music education alive in public schools


A few children shuffle in their seats to get a better look, but most of them resume their work putting their clarinets together.

"Okay, let's talk about what the holes do again," says instructor Katherine Lyles. "What's going to happen if you can't cover the hole? Nobody can answer that?"

One boy answers: "Oh, it'll interfere. It'll interfere with the sound of the clarinet."

Lyles follows up, "Will it be able to play higher notes? Or lower notes?”

"Higher notes," the boy says.

The class of fourth grade clarinet players is moving along smoothly. Lyle is here teaching thanks to the grant from the Oakland Symphony.

The East Bay Symphony’s aim is to help economically challenged students engage and reach out to different communities with Oakland through the Oakland Youth Orchestra and the Young People’s Concert. The program has come a long way over the years. Students have the opportunity to participate in OEBS Young Artist Competition and earn the chance to perform publicly with the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

Music for Excellence, also referred to as MUSE, sends out professional musicians to Oakland Public schools who teach small groups of students and provide individual instruction to student, just like Lyles is doing right now at Franklin Elementary.

"The way I teach," Lyles says, "if I don't say anything to you, you're doing it right. If you're exceptional I might point you out. I will say something to somebody who needs to fix it."

Lyles teaches a class for the deaf and hard of hearing.

"They're really a lot of fun because they experience everything physically," Lyles says, "so there's a lot of drumming, and percussion.”

Lyles goes out of her way to ensure that her students have access to instruments that they are really interested in. But, she says, "I'm gonna set up a drum set soon so that we can hear him. So we just pretty much try to have them enjoy themselves in the class."

Lyles always has the students’ best interest at heart. She knows that their enjoyment with the instrument comes hand in hand with how dedicated they will be to music.

"They experience the world so differently," Lyles says. "I've realized I sometimes feel less competent because they speak sign language and I don't. So, I'm learning things slowly, but I don't retain it as well as a child does."

Lyles teaches students of all abilities at Franklin. She says she started teaching music more than 20 years ago.

"This district had pretty much eliminated all the music programs," says Lyles. "And, so the music teachers wanted to get it back so they hired a limited number of teachers."

But, she says, once upon a time, Oakland had a thriving music program, "which is what they originally had back in the sixties, when music was just flourishing in Oakland. There was the huge – one of the most famous  music programs in the country was right here in Oakland."

The program was called "Pull Out” – a program which, according to Lyles, "was to pull the kids out of the classroom, like we're doing here, and that works much better. The only problem with that of course, is that it's disruptive to the teachers. Cause they're leaving their classrooms to go to music. Some teachers handle it more than others."

Lyles explains that the music program thrives when teachers are flexible with their schedule and supportive of what the music program offers.

"I always say, you've gotta stay flexible and some teachers are very flexible," she says. "Here at Franklin everyone is very accommodating."

Ms. Lyles says that even after 20 years, she's still learning. 

"It really does take a long time, you know, to understand what they're not getting. Even just this morning, it was the first time I realized that the way I had them counting and tapping their feet, and counting the measures,” she says. “We'd never done that before, they all got it. So when a light bulb goes off like that, it’s exciting, I finally found something."

Like good teaching, when you can get someone to have that "Aha!" moment, you know you're onto something. Thanks to the Oakland Symphony, the music will continue to play in schools like Franklin, despite budget cuts.

Ryan Zavala is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.