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Taking 'Notes': MPR series brings classical music into the schools

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Third-grader Jacinda Lossing laughs on Wednesday as she makes train noises during a visit from Minnesota Public Radio’s Class Notes program at Northern Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 3
Alyssa Anderson and Joe Spoelstra, of The Dream Songs Project, talk about one of their songs to Northern Elementary School students for Minnesota Public Radio’s Class Notes program on Wednesday. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer) 3 / 3

BEMIDJI—What's the difference, musically, between a worm and a bird?

A pair of classical music performers posed that question to a roomful of Northern Elementary students on Wednesday: Guitarist Joe Spoelstra plodded between a handful of notes and, to his right, Alyssa Anderson sang about "one who stretches like a beautiful noodle." The first-, second-, and third-graders grinned at the goofy phrase as they wiggled and scrunched their index fingers—a worm. They flapped their hands as the ensemble shifted to bright, lilting guitar and voice work—a bird.

"Just like we can use our words, our adjectives, to describe these animals, we can kind of describe the animals with music," Spoelstra said. He and Anderson are The Dream Songs Project, a chamber music duo that's been playing for schools across northwest Minnesota for "Class Notes," a Classical Minnesota Public Radio series designed to expose students to more live music and help them learn about composers and instruments.

Spoelstra and Anderson delineated the differences between a composer, writer and performer in between songs with lyrics borrowed from poems and long-ago train schedules.

Anderson held a trio of long, high notes that fell off at the very end—a train whistle—and led students in a crescendo of "ch"s as the imagined engine picked up speed alongside Spoelstra's guitar tempo. She sang the Great Northern No. 20's schedule: departs St. Paul at 4:30 p.m. with stops in Minneapolis, Cambridge, Sandstone, and Superior, Wis., before ending at 7:45 p.m. in Duluth, "the scenic city of the unsalted sea."

"So did you hear all the parts of a train in that song?" Anderson asked. The students "yeah"-ed. "Yeah! So composer Christopher Gable wrote music that sounds like the train. It sounds like what the words were talking about."

Spoelstra rapped the side of his guitar—a hammer, he figured, at the outset of a busy number cribbed from century-old surveyor's notes.

School staff shuttled three classes through the session at a time. Each is a supplement to students' existing music education, explained Debby Miller, a veteran music teacher who splits her time between Northern and J.W. Smith Elementary. Elementary students at Northern have two 30-minute music classes each week, she said. "It's very nice to have them listen to live performance," Miller said of her students. "They don't get that much music. And so we're promoting music in our schools...maybe they'll get excited about singing or playing an instrument."

At least 22,000 students will see a Class Notes performance and visit during the school year, according to MPR staff. Of the 122 locations that program artists will visit, 62 are in Greater Minnesota.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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