Putting cool in homeschool

Education | From orchestra to mosh pit, non-traditional learners take tradition to a new level

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

Wedged between music stands and backpacks, two dozen students ages 12-18 are practicing for an upcoming radio gig. After the God's Glory chamber ensemble plays a spirited Mozart divertimento, music director Terri Blackwell reminds them to "switch moods" before beginning Gabriel Faure's "Pavane": "Think of the melodic rise and fall we talked about earlier."

The musicians respond, playing with an expressive maturity beyond their age. Next, cellist Amie Blackwell, 15, takes her place at the piano, leading the chamber ensemble in "Distant Memories," a piece Amie wrote and orchestrated herself. When rehearsal is over, some members of God's Glory play volleyball in the gym while others skateboard in the parking lot.

Which school is responsible for the success of the ensemble? None. God's Glory is the pinnacle musical ensemble of the Providence Fine Arts Center, a St. Louis-area cooperative for homeschooling families dedicated to teaching the arts from a Christian worldview.

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Providence started 10 years ago when Ms. Blackwell and a couple of other homeschooling moms, fighting the stereotype that homeschool students are isolated, developed a way for their children to practice playing their instruments with other kids. Mothers with backgrounds ranging from home economics to microbiology pooled their talents and volunteered their time to keep costs low.

Providence, still run by mother-teachers, has since grown to 180 students with a three-year waiting list, offering classes for instrumental music, choir, and drama to homeschoolers as young as 4 years old. Its mission: "To provide a fine arts program that will train up children to be excellent in the arts for the purpose of giving glory to God."

Little ones start the program learning the basics of music theory and rhythm from teacher Pam Zigo, who strives "to make their first taste of music fun" with games, simple instruments, and "lots of moving around." Following a classical approach, students learn the foundations of music before learning to play a particular instrument. When they turn 8, students attend a recorder class to put their theory into practice and learn to play as a group. After this, they are ready to pick an instrument and play in an orchestra. The rigorous curriculum builds on itself, rounding out the orchestra experience with music history and improvisational piano.

The program's focus on music theory and classical repertoire encourages students to enjoy more diverse musical styles than the average American Idol fan. "I don't like simplistic music," says Megan Sivcovich, 16. "It's boring." Eric Barfield, 18, agrees: "The theory that I've learned has helped me think that rock songs are so easy." But not everyone is a pure classicist. "I don't really listen to this kind of music, but it's cool because it widens my horizon," says 17-year-old guitarist Jordan Lake, who applies his music theory when he writes music for his own band, No Such Monster.

Presenting the arts from a Christian worldview can be a challenge since much of the current art scene is plagued with nihilism and marked with un-Christian elements, but Providence instructors teach discernment in the arts so that students might be "pure, not naïve." Drama director Karen Carvalho notes that many scripts are distasteful, containing foul language and content inappropriate for both the actors and the audience.

The Providence solution? Select students become drama interns, writing, producing, and directing their own plays. Besides learning how to create original works from a Christian perspective, young playwrights gain firsthand experience leading other students of varying ages. Teachers also pick their plays carefully, choosing the classic The Fiddler on the Roof for last year's culminating project. The musical was so successful that one audience member "forgot (she) was watching kids."

Homeschooling mother and Providence teacher Rhonda Barfield encourages other families to start fine arts co-ops with this advice: Recognize the talent within your circle. While some parents are gifted in music and drama, those with strong organization skills or business savvy are just as valuable. Work with a leadership committee and encourage every parent to be involved at some level.

Ms. Blackwell underscores the importance of Christian worldview: "We've put God first. We decided in the beginning that we were going to serve Him, to pray about everything, and to search His will for what we do."

Both Owen Davis and his daughter Aliyah, 16, have long, dark hair. She favors ripped jeans and big black T-shirts. His jeans have no holes, but he wears a black leather jacket. She's learning to play the electric guitar with plans to lead a band of homeschoolers in head-banging tunes. When he's not keeping time for their church's worship team, goateed Mr. Davis bangs out the back beat in a rock band whose repertoire includes Pink Floyd.


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