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Mesquite School And Dallas Chamber Symphony Team Up For Unique Classroom Experience

The elementary school field trip to a concert hall is one thing. But in Mesquite, concert hall musicians head to the school. They also visit by iPad. It’s part of an unusual, experimental program that combines personal and virtual school visits with digital and interactive lessons.

Rutherford Elementary music teacher Ronnie Wolfe’s fourth grade class sits on the gym floor listening hard to Oliver Schlaffer’s cello, trying to meet his challenge.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to get this one …”

Schlaffer’s the principal cellist with the Dallas Chamber Symphony. He’s playing a theme from a movie, and he’s asked the class to guess the film. He’s been at the school before to teach these kids about classical music and to get them excited about it.    

“Ooh, I know!! Star Wars,” the students yelled.

Fun for these kids matters to Schlaffer and the symphony. The cellist volunteered for this teacher role hoping to grab the kids while they’re young.

“If you look around at other types of music, rock music or whatever else, when do you first adopt the love for that type of music?" Schlaffer says. "It’s when you’re young.  You look at the classical music side of things. And when do most people get exposed to classical music? Well, it’s much later in life.”

Mesquite ISD became the focus of the Dallas Chamber Symphony thanks to a billboard showing district students with iPads. The school system is among just a few in Texas and the nation with a one-to-one program, meaning every kid gets an iPad. Chamber Symphony founder and conductor Richard McKay had been seeking a new way to reach kids when he drove past that billboard.   

“Most people consume music through digital devices,” McKay explains. “That’s why this program isn’t intimidating to students. It’s because they can learn about us on the devices they’re already using, they can immerse themselves.  And they can learn to be consumers of the arts in the future, as they choose.”

It was an easy sell to Mesquite. McKay offered twice-monthly musician visits, a concert hall field trip, and virtual classrooms three times a month, like this one with Schlaffer using Facetime. All at no cost.  

“Hello fifth grade,” Schlaffer greeted the class via iPad.

“Hey,” the kids screamed.

One boy asked: “Did you really want to play cello? Like really?”

“Oh Yes!” Schlaffer said. “I think when I started it wouldn’t have mattered if it was the cello or violin or piano.”

McKay and children’s author and illustrator Barbara Vance also created an iPad music text, just for Rutherford.

“This section focuses on their trip to the concert hall,” McKay says, viewing the iPad application. “It shows them where they’re going, it even shows on the map here where they’ll be traveling on the busses on the highway, they can see everything about our venue.”

“We designed this to be interactive,” Vance adds. “So they can click on the map and go in and see it. We did special logos and things so that these are all fun facts.”

Music teacher Ronnie Wolfe’s been at this for 16 years. He says his kids have been to concert halls before. But thanks to this program, they get to see and talk to musicians up close, something they’d never get to do otherwise. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.