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Kids do more than just name that tune - Brooklyn schools excel in Riverside Symphony’s 2008 Music Memory Finals

Nonie Donato’s fifth-graders from P.S. 193 in Midwood placed first in the Riverside Symphony’s 2008 Music Memory Finals competition, followed closely by Michael Tornick’s fifth-grade class from P.S. 236 in Mill Basin, which finished second.

“We scored 100 [percent] and Mr. Tornick’s class omitted a name from a title, so they ended up with a 99 [percent],” said Donato, who thought the classes should have tied.

Music Memory, introduced by Riverside Symphony to New York City schools in 1999, is designed to teach and instill a love of music in elementary school children.

Each year 30 teams come to the Skirball Center at New York University for the Music Memory Finals competition where they must identify the composition and composer of a piece of classical or jazz music they studied after listening to only a short melodic fragment.

The pieces this year included “Hoedown” from “Rodeo” by Aaron Copland, “Cantata No. 208 (Sheep May Safely Graze)” by J.S. Bach and “For the Beauty of the Earth” by John Rutter.

Donato, Tornick and music teacher Steven Liotta of P.S. 312 in Bergen Beach have been preparing award-winning students for many years. Last year, their teams won a total of four first-place and two second-place ribbons. At the finals on May 28, students from third through sixth grade listened and identified 16 musical selections performed onstage by Riverside Symphony and vocal soloists under the direction of the symphony’s musical director, George Rothman.

“Why do we win? Because I work so hard to teach the program the right way,” said Donato, whose fifth-grade team has won first place in three of the past four years. “P.S. 193 was always a home to this gifted program so we have a lot of bright children there. We study composers, other music from the composer, other music of the same genre, and the history of their periods, of composers. We spread it out to make the program a full course of study.”

Donato, a classically trained singer, believes she has been fortunate to be able to share her love of classical music with her students throughout the course of an entire academic calendar. The Music Memory program has allowed her to teach music from different periods, well beyond the standard curriculum at her primary school.

“The administration is very pro-arts education,” Donato said. “Principal Frank Cimino allows us to teach, and spend quite a bit of time in music, arts and dance. We take pride in putting on shows. I don’t really feel pressured from teachers worried about reading and math exams.”

Her music appreciation course is a popular one, as students clamor to join one of two teams Donato sends to the Music Memory finals. The school holds its own competition before the Citywide Finals where this year students in the audience identified music played by the school’s nine-year old budding classical pianist, Lily Chen. Many students also supported their classmates, playing along in the audience at the Skirball Center.

“There’s nothing like hearing a live orchestra play the music they study,” Donato said. “They love it. It’s one of the best things that happens in school.”

Donato wants programs like Music Memory spread to different areas of study and that the program itself become available in other schools throughout Brooklyn.

“I was speaking to a parent last week and she said she’s involved in the Scholars’ Academy out in the Rockaways and wished they would also do Music Memory,” Donato said. “Once parents get wind of this program they want to get the program in their own school and get their children involved.”

For more information about the Riverside Symphony and its music appreciation programs, visit http://www.riversidesymphony.org.

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