Does an instrument choose a child, or does a child choose their instrument? Alice and Nahum Lainer School Orchestra Director Dr. David Brown believes it’s a little of both. Brown, who has a doctoral degree in music composition from USC, helps to gently steer students towards instruments that are right for them. “A kid with no front teeth can’t really play a trumpet,” says Brown. “We always have too many percussionists, we never have enough violas. And yet the kids are making beautiful music, and for them it’s really cool to be playing the instrument that works for them.”
Most orchestra programs for lower schools are either string instruments or wind instruments. But Lainer School’s orchestra—which, under Brown’s leadership, has reached 60 members—combines wind, string and percussion instruments.
The school orchestra is comprised of beginning, advanced and intermediate players, many of whom never picked up an instrument before school orchestra. They play several gigs a year, including at local Jewish events and school assemblies: for a recent assembly they learned a Mozart symphony, Beethoven, an original composition by Brown and Jewish melodies. The orchestra also socializes together, with an annual trip to Disneyland as part of the Forum Music Festivals program and field trips to the L.A. Opera. “They’re becoming musically literate,” says Brown. “And they’ll have that for the rest of their lives.”
The Orchestra is an afterschool program, but Alice and Nahum Lainer School classrooms are also full of music. From the energetic Hebrew singing in the experiential kindergarten program to the sounds of guitar and prayer at daily t’filot or a folksy accordion at Kabbalat Shabbat, music is a daily part of the school’s life.
Music pushes into the classroom in cognitive ways, too. “There are a tremendous amount of neurological studies on music,” says Brown. “People playing instruments do better in school. While that’s always been observed, we can now see it in the patterns of the brain. Music study brings increases in brain real estate for motor functions, auditory cortex, memory, language learning and math.”
That’s lofty, but Brown is quick to point out that at Alice and Nahum Lainer School, music study is also a celebration of what it means to be a kid. “One of my favorite moments here wasn’t a soaring concerto but a regular kid moment,” Brown says. “We had an opportunity for a cellist to have a solo and one student volunteered to learn it and played it at the concert. Then he asked if he could play it at a school assembly…he wanted to impress a girl. Then he wanted to perform it publicly a third time…to impress a different girl, his mom.”
Although Brown and Alice and Nahum Lainer School take music seriously, it’s that willingness to let kids be kids that draws so many students more deeply into music study. And that, in turn, manifests in a heightened spiritual experience for all students.
“Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talks about the inner connection between music and the spirit,” says School Rabbi Andrew Feig. “All of the opportunities for musical expression at Sinai Akiba come together when we sing and pray. It’s an inexpressible quality; you can hear it in the voices of the children. As Rabbi Sacks says, ‘their souls break free’.”