School of Music ensemble’s interactive presentation is music to students’ ears
Any fifth grader can look up “democracy” in a dictionary, but how do you bring a simple definition to life?
Simple. Set it to music.
That’s what the Maia Quartet, the faculty quartet-in-residence in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Music, did this year with fifth- and sixth-grade students in the Iowa City Community School District with a project called “Democracy in Action.”
Maia violinist Tricia Park, violist Beth Oakes, and cellist Hannah Holman—they were searching for a second violinist at that point—give an interactive presentation with mock rehearsals featuring arguments about tempo, volume, and who gets the melody. This provides a practical lesson on how a group of strong-willed and talented individuals can compromise to…well, to make beautiful music.
The idea to combine the study of democracy and music came when the quartet learned that fifth and sixth graders would be studying early Greek democracy. “It occurred to me that we have an organization without an official leader,” Oakes says. “It’s also interesting that Iowa has become such a big part of the democratic process with our caucuses. It was a chance to talk about the cradle of democracy and about how it works now.”
The development of “Democracy in Action” was much like the process it describes, Oakes notes. “Our script has changed because we see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to interacting with students. You get to understand the rhythm and how it’s going to go.”
It’s also fascinating to discover how the students react. “They’re curious about how much we move,” Oakes says. “It’s a shock to some people. And sometimes they cover their ears because the music is louder than they expect.”
Based on audience response, it appears that “Democracy in Action” is achieving its purpose.
As one observant student wrote, “The way you talked about how you guys have to argue and improvise was very cool. Even though I have been to many orchestras, I haven’t actually known what happened backstage. I guess quartets and trios have more latitude than orchestras because you don’t have a conductor.”