Chiwoniso walked in front of the 15 second-graders sitting on the floor at Leschi Elementary School and took a chair. She carefully pronounced her long name for them and told them she was from Zimbabwe.
“Do you know where Zimbabwe is?” she asked.
Hands shot up. “Africa!” one boy shouted out.
“Yes, it’s in Africa, but where?”
The children were stumped. “North?” they guessed. “East?”
Chiwoniso pointed to a map of Africa taped to the back of a piano in the room. “It’s right here in the southern part of Africa,” she said. “It’s a small country with only 13 million people.
Then she took her instrument out of its case and laid it on her lap. “This is a mbira,” she said. “Can you say ‘mbira’?”
The children intoned the word back to her as she held the instrument up for them. It looks like a wooden drum, but inside it are some metal keys that are played mostly with the thumbs.
“Mbira is a very cool instrument,” Chiwoniso told the kids. “It’s one of those instruments that people play to enjoy themselves, but it’s also an instrument that people play for spiritual connection, for religion, to be close to God, or to spirit ancestors. Do you understand what I’m talking about — spirit ancestors? Spirit is part of you. As people, we’ve got body, we’ve got breath and we’ve got spirit. So spirit is part of every single one of us. With the mbira instrument — it’s used in Zimbabwe to connect with the spirit side.”
Chiwoniso is one of the entertainers in the World Music and Theater Series at Meany Hall, and she visited Leschi to give the students there a little exposure to the music she played at her concert, and to teach them something about the culture from which she comes. Her six sessions at several elementary schools are just a few of the 69 such sessions that will be offered this year alone by performers at Meany.
It’s all part of Community Connections, the educational outreach program that’s attached to the UW World Series. Performers like Chiwoniso go out to area schools, perform free youth matinees at Meany and give master classes to budding artists at the UW and in the community.
“Sometimes the artist performs at a whole-school assembly and sometimes they work with small groups of kids,” said Elizabeth Duffell, World Series education director. “More and more artists are trained to do educational outreach these days, and many think of it as an important part of their mission.”
Back at Leschi, Chiwoniso showed the kids the metal keys on her mbira, then played a simple tune. “So this side is the instrument side and this big round box is like a speaker,” she said. “That’s what makes it louder. Then when I’m playing with a big band, I plug in and it becomes like a guitar; it’s electric and everybody can hear it no matter where they are.”
She passed the instrument around to the kids, so that each one had a chance to hold it and pluck the keys if they wanted to. Then she sang a song written by her father that she had first sung at the age of 9. Before her 45 minutes with the kids were up, she’d gotten them to sing a song with her and to listen to a traditional story from Zimbabwe.
“Chiwoniso’s session was organic,” Duffell said. “She had a general idea and she paid attention to the kids’ reaction. Other performers sometimes have a formal program planned out in advance.”
Some performers come for as long as two weeks and spend time working hands-on with student musicians in the schools. The Marian Anderson String Quartet, for example, worked with string players at TT Minor, Washington Middle School and Meany Middle School last year, ending with the students performing in Benaroya’s recital hall.
Other performers manage to include interaction in their sessions even with an auditorium full of kids. Like pianist Jade Simmons, another entertainer from last year’s program, who did a session on emotion in music. She’d play a short piece and ask the kids what emotion was being portrayed. Or, she’d ask the kids to give her an emotion and she’d play it. And sometimes, she’d invite a child up on stage to act out an emotion she was playing.
To carry out the program, Meany sometimes partners with nonprofit organizations such as the Ladies Musical Club and Seattle Music Partners, who are particularly interested in bringing music to the schools — especially schools that do not have music programs beyond the basic one that the school district provides.
It was, in fact, with the help of the Ladies Musical Club that the program got started back in 2001. A member of the World Series Board of Directors was also a member of the club. So when World Series Director Matthew Krashan said he wanted to get some of the series artists out into the schools, he was able to work with the club to accomplish it. Later, Meany hired its own education director to administer the program.
Since 2001, the UW World Series Music in Schools program has sponsored 305 classroom events at more than 110 schools reaching almost 25,000 students. In addition, more than 50,000 students have attended the free matinee programs the UW World Series presents at Meany Hall in that time.
In addition to the artist appearances, the program works with K-12 teachers to help them integrate material into their lessons. For Chiwoniso, for example, teachers got a CD of her music and background information on her and the style of music she plays. And each school receives 10 pairs of complimentary tickets to the artist’s World Series concert.
“I’d like do more pre-visit preparation and follow-up for the teachers in the future,” Duffell said.
But for now, she feels good about the program. “Every single artist we’ve had has brought something the kids would never have access to otherwise,” she said. “The fact that these artists come from all over the world and the caliber of artists we’re bringing, it’s been pretty special.”
For more information about the program, visit online here.