A few hundred students filed into the Franklin Elementary School gymnasium, making the typical chatter as they saw friends, discussed their mornings and found a seat.
Suddenly, the room quieted, with only the sound of four musicians playing Mozart’s “The Hunt String Quartet,” a piece with the same name as the group itself. The quartet, a partnership between the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was making its second visit to the school this year as part of the “Up Close and Musical” program led by MSO.
The 21-year-old program has a quartet visit up to six elementary schools in the area four times each year, with the quartet playing pieces and discussing musical concepts with students. At the end of the year, students from all of the schools attend an MSO concert with the full symphony at the Overture Center. Their “friends,” as MSO director of education and community engagement Kathryn Schwarzmann called the Hunt Quartet, are easily identified wearing a different color on stage in front of the orchestra.
“You can hear the cheers,” said MSO director of marketing Peter Rodgers. “They embrace those musicians when they come in.”
This year’s schools include Franklin, Lapham, Shorewood and Thoreau in Madison as well as Sandhill and Eagle Point elementary schools in Stoughton and DeForest, respectively. Franklin music teacher Megan Moran said the school applied to be part of the program last year but was put on a waiting list. She’s said it’s an especially good opportunity for a school that only has grades kindergarten through second, meaning there is no strings program for the students to see their older peers taking part in.
“So for some kids here this is their first experience with orchestral string instruments,” Moran said. “Getting to see them live is a really exciting and big deal for them.
“I feel really lucky to have it at our school.”
That excitement was clear as the students listened to the four members of the quartet — Rachel Reese, Alex Chambers-Ozasky, Ava Shadmani and Fabio Sággin — explain ascending and descending melodies in the various pieces they played. Students at times pretended to conduct the group from their seats, and excitedly yelled out “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” when they recognized the piece.
Moran said the students making connections with the music and the musicians is an especially great part of the program, as the same four visit each time and the students begin to recognize them. The diversity of the group, with one each from Mississippi, Minnesota, Brazil and Iran, allows a range of students to see that orchestral music can be open to all.
“They’re not only making these musical connections, but making the connections with these musicians,” she said. “(It) lets them have a more personal experience, maybe see themselves there someday.”
The program has stayed relatively consistent over its more than two decades of existence, Schwarzmann said, though it adapted to new state music standards as those were updated. Otherwise, “the format has remained true,” she said.
While the demand for the program often leaves a wait list, that’s a good sign for its effectiveness and the interest of schools, Schwarzmann said. They’re limited to six each year at the moment given the quartet’s other commitments.
The buildup from the individual members performing pieces of music, to the quartet performing at the school, to finally, the full orchestra, also allows students to identify the differences in how music sounds with those groups and instruments included, Schwarzmann noted.
“In classical music, you don’t want to make a piece a surprise, that’s not the most effective way to do it,” Schwarzmann said. “The more you’ve heard a piece before, the more you enjoy it in the concert hall. That culminating concert is a really important part of the program.”
Schwarzmann views classical music as a “tool” for healing, inspiration and cognitive development, and MSO director of development Casey Oelkers said the Up Close and Musical concerts help the students understand the feelings behind the music.
“A lot of times music can express what words can’t,” Oelkers said. “It’s a language in and of itself.”
Bringing the music to the schools is a key part of advancing MSO's mission to keep people interested in classical music and, Schwarzmann said, hopefully a way to open it to a wider audience.
"By putting this program into the public schools, we're not excluding anybody," she said. "We're not excluding people based on whether their parents can drive them to a location to take music lessons or whether they can afford to go to a concert and see something.
"Every single child deserves to have music and needs music in their life."