School Ties: ‘Bach to School’ Brings Classical to the Kids

MAXINE FISHER MAY HAVE RETIRED but in her life the band — or better said, the chamber ensemble — plays on. All for the benefit of children. As she left her long-term position as a Queens College administrator, Fisher envisaged and created a new program, one that fills an educational and cultural gap by bringing classical music to elementary schools throughout the borough.

Maxine Fisher, far left, and the Saxophone Quartet


By May, “Bach to School,” which began last year with a grant from the Queens College Foundation will have presented chamber concerts performed by advanced-level Queens college music students in 11 schools. The grant pays for the musicians’ honorariums and transportation. So far the ensembles have included the Queens College Baroque Trio, Saxophone Quartet and Percussion Ensemble.

They have played for elementary school students in communities such as Corona, East Elmhurst, Flushing, Maspeth, Middle Village, Richmond Hill and Woodside. Fisher, a CUNY-educated anthropologist who still teaches English as an adjunct, retired as director of the college’s exchange program with the University of Paris, a position she held since 1982.

She loves that “Bach to School” is also an exchange of sorts. What she and the musicians get in return for their efforts are accolades from their unlikely audiences: First through sixth graders.

“We can see the students really respond viscerally,” Fisher says. “They move to the music, dance in their seats, even pretend to conduct. They might learn to identify a musical ‘conversation’ between saxophones. Or raise their hands when they hear a theme repeated. Every so often, a child will inquire about the exact name of a composition by Johann Sebastian Bach — or Aaron Copland.” Sean Forde, the only music teacher at P.S. 56 in Richmond Hill, where one concert was held, reports with awe: “Here, they listened to 40 minutes straight of baroque music.”

Later, the members of the student audiences write thank you letters:
“I used to think the only thing a violin was good for was to hurt a person’s ears with its loud screeching. But I really enjoyed your playing,” said one sent to the Baroque Trio.

Fisher is not a musician herself. But she is a lifelong aficionado of classical music. As a child, her mother brought her to many concerts. But, as her retirement approached, she began to notice that children were not at the concerts she attended. Perhaps, never having been exposed to this music, they simply did not want to come. Or perhaps their parents could not afford to take them. Forde’s P.S. 56, for example, is among Title One schools visited by the musicians — schools with a high percentage of students from low-income families. “A lot of the parents are working, Forde says. “They might not have the means or the time to take their children to performances.” Most of the schools also do not have performance classes.
If the students were not coming to hear the music, Fisher wondered if she should bring the music to them.

So she went to see Edward Smaldone, director of the college’s Aaron Copland School of Music. “In my mind it was very theoretical,” Fisher says. “But he said, ‘Let’s do it! Do you have contacts in the schools?'” She did. About Smaldone, Fisher says: “He is a force of nature.”

So, it seems, are the musicians. For example, Erik Andersen, Baroque Trio cellist, explains musical variations by comparing them to different kinds of pizza. Forde marvels at how a recorder player, also from the Baroque Trio, gradually showed students different sizes of recorders starting with the soprano version they play. By the time he got to the baritone, one student said, “That would be a recorder for a giant.”

Ryan Oberlin, a Queens College senior and music education major who plays in the Saxophone Quartet, says that the concerts are “the most fun I have ever had playing in front of an audience.” They enable him, he says, to learn more not only about performing but about teaching music as well. “Afterward the students always want to stick around, take pictures, look at the instruments,” he says.