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Mount Washington Students Express 'Voices Within'

Fifth-graders at Mount Washington Elementary School sing songs of math with members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The program at is called Voices Within … but what you notice are the voices that are not within: Two classes of fifth graders (with some fourth graders sprinkled in) singing songs they’ve written and composed with the help of a composer/lyricist/performing artist team from the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Even more of a thrill?  The young songwriters will be performing their finished songs with the Chorale.

Songs About What?!

You might expect the songs’ subject matter to feature worthy but general topics such as happiness, peace, togetherness.

Expect the unexpected from Voices Within and Mount Washington Elementary School, however.  The six songs written by students in Cindy Lowery and Safini Convey’s classrooms are all about math: chaos theory, tessellations, algebra, geometry, topology and the Fibonacci Sequence.

Songs Are About the Feeling

If you think math-inspired songs would be dry as dust, think again.  According to Amy Fogerson, the Master Chorale team member who conducts the chorus, one Master Chorale singer cries every time the group practices the chaos theory song Every Movement.

True confession: I cried too.

This just means that the students have done their job as songwriters, of course.  “We started with lyrics, and then encouraged the students to follow their instincts to write melodies that expressed the emotions and told the stories suggested by those lyrics,” explains David O, pianist and member of the Master Chorale team, which also includes Mark Savage.

Paolina, who is in Ms. Convey’s class, collaborated on the chaos theory song and says the biggest surprise was realizing that “songs don’t have to rhyme” and that songwriting is more about capturing “the feeling."

Collaboration is Key

Nick, a student in Ms. Lowery’s class who worked on the tessellation song, says the members of his group “kept talking, kept trying to figure out the song.”

“Collaboration was a major component of the program,” confirms Convey.  “Students [in each class] were initially put into groups of five to six members based on their topic preferences (algebra, topology etc.). [The students] then did a lot of writing. They would receive a prompt like ‘What does a world full of algebra look like?’ and write. Students then shared their ideas with their group, making note of particularly strong phrases or imagery.”  The students then collaborated with their counterparts in the other class (i.e. Convey’s topology songwriting team collaborated with the topology team in Lowery’s class, etc.)

Songs for Every Student

Artistic Director Marnie Mosiman says she created the Voices Within program 12 years ago because “there were no performing arts programs in Los Angeles at the time that asked students to create their own music and did this by teaching collaborative skills.” 

Mosiman notes that, “Almost all programs were concentrated on exposing students to arts performances, [such as] busing kids in to see a performance of a professional company, or…offering lessons to talented and interested students.”

Mosiman adds that she was “interested in those kids who…didn't even know they liked to sing.  We teach in regular 5th grade classrooms and include every student.”

PTA and FOMW Provide Key Funding

Lowery, who has been involved with the program for approximately six years, says that in the past, Mount Washington students have collaborated with students from schools such as Delevan Drive Elementary School.  “This is the first time that we have had two classrooms from Mount Washington working together,” says Lowery who adds that, “It’s much easier in terms of collaboration.  With two schools, it was difficult to get the two classes together.”

Lowery adds that “Due to funding issues, we have not had the program for the past two years.  This year, the PTA and the Friends of Mount Washington donated the necessary funds to get the program back.”

It should prove a sound investment.

Mosiman notes that “Giving [students] their own voice, their own songs to sing [has] made [them] enthusiastic singers and communicators and helped create a collaborative environment in the classroom that teachers said lasted the rest of the year.”

Rules of Collaboration a Lesson for All

Mosiman’s most important “rules of collaboration”?

-- Behave AS IF your team is made up of your best friends. 

-- Listen actively – look at your partners and acknowledge what they are saying to you. 

-- Share your ideas and feelings strongly and clearly.

-- BE BRAVE!

-- JUST SAY YES!!

 All that and the Fibonacci Sequence too.

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