Schoolchildren in Juneau and New York City guided Ron the trumpet player and Skippy the squirrel from the Alaska capital to the Big Apple, past sleeping rattlesnakes and rope-skipping girls, in a novel interactive music game Friday.
The event - which used sophisticated phone lines in a videoconference between a new concert hall at Carnegie Hall and a studio at KTOO downtown - inaugurated a connection this school year with Carnegie Hall's educational staff.
The Carnegie Hall building has three concert halls, including the newly opened Zankel Hall, which is equipped with distance-learning technology. The organization that runs Carnegie Hall has offered educational programs in New York City schools for years. Friday's event began its efforts to take the programs around the nation by technology.
Ten fourth-graders from Glacier Valley Elementary School in the Mendenhall Valley and 10 from Public School 34 in the Lower East Side of Manhattan teamed up to answer questions about music as they guided Ron and Skippy across the country in an animated game. Students could watch each other on screens as Greg Triggs of the Disney Channel and Jeff Brown of public broadcasting's KTOO hosted the game.
The trip began with a bear suggesting that Ron, who had missed his plane out of Juneau, paddle a Tlingit canoe to get to a ship leaving town. In the first question, Heston Allred of Juneau and a New York girl named Esther had to identify which tempo would get him to the ship the fastest - presto, moderato or largo.
The questions became more difficult as Ron and a squirrel he picked up along the way headed east. At each locality, students saw a typical sort of transportation for that area, from covered wagons to street cars to subways, and heard regional folk songs as part of the clues.
The game covered some basic music skills that will be added to throughout the school year in a curriculum designed by Carnegie Hall, which is donating all the teaching materials, as well as wooden recorders.
It was "a fun way to introduce the kids to the concepts before they home in on the more specific recorder and music skills they'll need as they go on with the curriculum," said Lisa Hallasz, director of school and family programs at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall.
The program also brings children together from very different parts of the country. Some of the students have been communicating by e-mail and just plain mail.
"I think this is pretty exciting for our students because they get to interface with students in the same grade from Juneau," said P.S. 34 Principal Joyce Stallings-Harte.
About three-quarters of P.S. 34's students are Hispanic and the others are people of color. Nearly nine out of 10 students at the 524-student school, which includes preschoolers through eighth-graders, are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
But the school has a rich tradition of music education, and its staff helped write the curriculum with Carnegie Hall. Tying music to history makes more sense to children, Stallings-Harte said.
The students in Sharon Denton's class at Glacier Valley, who participated in the game Friday, also have a tradition of music. Denton's students sing with first-graders and perform at community events and senior centers during holidays.
"I just value (music) because I don't think kids have enough of the arts in the school. Forty-five minutes is not enough," she said, referring to the school's once-a-week music class. "There is so much history involved in the songs. And the reading connection: When they're singing, they're still reading words."
This spring, also as part of the Carnegie Hall connection, children from a number of fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms throughout the district will play recorders during a performance of the Juneau Symphony, said Glacier Valley music teacher Lorrie Heagy.
"The hope is to have music not just in the music class but the classroom," she said.
The Carnegie Hall curriculum, which is about how composers create melodies and how those melodies affect listeners, is tied to Antonin Dvorak's "From the New World" Symphony. The Czech composer spent some time in the United States between 1892 and 1895. The Juneau Symphony will perform one movement of that piece in April.
In addition, Glacier Valley students will work throughout the year on a production of a children's version of "Prospero and the Killerwhale" by David Hunsaker of Juneau. The play, previously produced by Theatre in the Rough, combines Tlingit legend and Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
"I wanted to do this because it was such a remarkable thing that this highly prized play of Shakespeare had the same plot as an obscure (Native) story," Hunsaker said.
At a planning meeting a week ago, Hunsaker and teachers Heagy and Jeremy Neldon and parent Susan Sielbach talked about the play as an opportunity to combine the Old World of Europe and the New World of America in a unique way. The music, for example, could be performed by cellists and Tlingit drummers.
Although only some students would perform as speakers or dancers, all of the school's students would study the play's themes and make masks and backdrops. The school expects to rely on adult volunteers to help, as it has in the past during its Art Tuesday program. Mask-maker and actor Roblin Davis of Juneau will train parents in how to lead mask-making lessons.
The Art Tuesday program began several years ago when the school community decided it was important to give teachers time out of the classroom to talk about how best to teach. Parents fill in during those classes with art activities, rather than use substitutes.
This year, teachers will use the free time to discuss how to use language and visual presentations in lessons to help students who don't have a strong grasp of academic English, said Principal Ted Wilson.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.