Students Learn More Than Just An Instrument


The sounds of a violin being fiddled, xylophone keys rhythmically tapped and the “ding” of the triangle filled the air as proud, smiling parents jockeyed for position, hoping to capture their child’s shining moment on camera.

It was the eve of winter break and students in Suva Elementary’s three third grade classes were performing in the school’s first winter concert, some for the first time in front of an audience.

It was the type of scene that plays out in auditoriums, classrooms and churches everywhere during the holiday season, only at Suva, the stakes are higher than just hitting the right note on stage, according to music teacher Sheryl Lewis-Gordon, who organized the concert.

Over 90 third graders from Suva Elementary performed at the Bell Gardens school during a winter concert Dec. 18. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Over 90 third graders from Suva Elementary performed at the Bell Gardens school during a winter concert Dec. 18. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

She said many of the 90 students in her third grade orchestra have also tuned-up their academic performance since standardized music instruction was added to their curriculum.

“Music has helped them in their studies,” said Lewis-Gordon. “Some of these students had issues with reading or trouble learning,” but are now making great strides, she said.

One of those making progress is eight-year-old Patrick, who according to Lewis-Gordon has increased his reading level by 50 words a minute.

Patrick’s father Rafael Arriaga says his son was so excited about learning an instrument at school, he convinced him to volunteer and play his clarinet with the class.

“Music motivates them” and “his test scores indicate that music made an impact,” said Arriaga in Spanish.

“Music helps me learn,” echoed young guitarist Richard Valdivia.

Lewis-Gordon credits the new Common Core standards implemented in the Montebello Unified School District last year, for the gains. The standards include teaching music in third grade, specifically music rhythm, patterns and performance skills.

“There are patterns in reading and math just like there is in music,” she explained.

As students focus on rhythm patterns, harmony and other music qualities, their listening skills improve, added Lewis-Gordon. Reading, writing and performing as they did last Thursday helps them improve their memory, she said.

“Music sends messages to the brain and helps students focus on memory techniques as they learn and remember patterns needed to understand mathematics,” said Lewis-Gordon, who has been teaching at Suva for 30 years.

Third graders from Suva Elementary perform during their first winter concert Dec. 18.(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Third graders from Suva Elementary perform during their first winter concert Dec. 18.(EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Raquel Reyes, assistant director of concerts, says music is important for all students, especially at Suva in Bell Gardens, a city that is home to a large immigrant population.

Music allows “many second language learners to communicate in a non-threatening environment” she said. “Music also increases self-esteem for those students that are not successful academically.”

Lewis-Gordon told EGP she has had students who started-off not speaking much English, yet have shined in her classroom and are now nearly fluent.

One of those who has shined is Jasmine Rangel-Garcia, who has been promoted to “music helper.” The eight-year-old helps her fellow classmates learn how to hold an instrument properly.

“It’s fun teaching others,” said Jasmine, not fully understanding the importance of what she’s learning, but proud she can help others.

The three classes began practicing for the hour-long concert performance in October. Since then, all of her students are turning in their homework on time and putting extra effort into class, according to Lewis-Gordon. She said it’s a change she’s seen repeated over and over again since musical instruments arrived in her classrooms in 2006. The difference now is the standards have formalized the connection between music and academic learning, giving it more weight in the overall curriculum.

“I hope that learning how to play an instrument will open the door for my students in their life’s endeavors, as they develop an appreciation for the arts in the years to follow,” said Lewis-Gordon, who believes music is in and of itself valuable. She proudly notes that some of her former students have gone on to play in their intermediate and high school bands.

“They may only start playing in the third grade, but maybe it lights the fuse for a magical, musical journey,” adds her husband Mark Gordon, who helps set up audio equipment and gives pep talks to the children.

To Reyes, the value of music instruction cannot be understated.

“Music education uncovers the hidden talents in our students, maybe becoming a reason for these students to graduate high school.”

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