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Chicago Chamber Musicians go to school

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If he keeps at it, practicing every day, sometime in the next few years 16-year-old Norman Mason may make it to the Auditorium stage. His dream is to be a first-class jazz pianist. If he gets there, and his teachers say he has a chance, the Sullivan High School junior will owe some thanks to Deborah Sobol and Larry Combs.

In 1986, Combs, the principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Sobol, a world-renowned pianist, formed the Chicago Chamber Musicians, a six-person association whose mission, aside from entertaining, is to spread an appreciation of classical and jazz music.

For the last five years that has meant weekly sessions at Sullivan High School, in Rogers Park. Sobol and Combs selected Sullivan because the school is close to CCM's studio and its principal, Robert Brazil, welcomed them. At the school the musicians tutor dozens of students, like Mason, many of whom had never before heard classical music, much less played it. "They encouraged me to develop my talents," says Mason. "I played music before I came here, but they have introduced me to styles and techniques I could never have learned on my own."

The CCM program is one of the few "public-private" partnerships that have lasted beyond the first spasms of publicity. "When they wandered in here five years ago, I was extremely skeptical," says Rosagitta Podrovsky, a music teacher at Sullivan. "We have been adopted by groups before. Generally, you'll get some business that comes in for a year or two. They'll get some summer jobs for a few kids or maybe they'll buy us a box of pencils. Then they leave. The CCM program has stood the test of time."

The program was conceived by Sobol in an attempt to replace the music programs lost to a decade of budget cuts. Years ago just about every high school in the system offered courses in art and music. Nowadays, there's only enough money to fund courses in one of the two subjects at each school.

Sullivan's music program is one of the best in the public schools; its music teachers, Podrovsky and Rick Dittemore, are themselves working musicians. "We do the best we can with what we have, although I must admit we don't have all the resources of some of your wealthier suburban districts," says Podrovsky. "We have a piano lab with 24 electronic pianos hooked into a central module. Not many schools in the city can offer their students individual piano lessons."

Sullivan counts among its graduates Ira Berkow, columnist for the New York Times, and Shecky Greene, the Las Vegas comedian who was a bruising fullback in his day and once held the school's rushing records. Thirty years ago the school's student body was predominantly Jewish. It has since become an almost even spread of blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics, mirroring demographic changes in Rogers Park.

Unlike the majority of Sullivan's music students, most of the CCM players were tabbed for success at an early age. Sobol, for instance, began playing the piano at age 7. Her first public performance was at age 9. By the time she was 18, Rudolf Serkin had invited her to perform at the Marlboro Summer Music Festival. Subsequently, she graduated magna cum laude from Smith College and studied chamber music at Harvard. In addition to Combs, her fellow musicians in the CCM include Joseph Genualdi, chairman of the string department at the University of Oregon School of Music, Bruce Grainger, assistant principal bassoon for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboe of the CSO, and Gail Williams, associate principal horn of the CSO.

They play a regular subscription series at Northwestern and DePaul universities as well as monthly free concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center. But their years of training had not prepared them for the audience at Sullivan. "I remember coming into a class one day and watching a class that was out of order," says Sobol. "I watched them for a moment and then I said, "Listen, you have a choice. We can leave and you can go back to what you are doing. Or we can stay and you can listen to us play.' Once they had a choice, once they felt they had some control over the situation, they listened. And they were one of the best audiences I have ever had."

Now CCM is a regular feature in the school. "We do a lot of different things here," says Diana Schmuck, a pianist and the group's education outreach director. "We have classroom visits where we perform. We also offer private lessons for kids who are learning the piano or a band instrument. Whenever we can, we bus the kids in to our Cultural Center concerts.

"Our approach is to break down barriers. Most people can appreciate music on some level. But when they are confronted with classical music, or music that is different, they panic. I tell them that there are certain things they can touch or feel or react to emotionally in music. I played Chopin to a class and I asked the kids, "What did you hear?' And they said it's sad. That's a start, that's a level where we connect. That's where they can begin to understand that this music was written by human beings who express emotion, and that music is not reserved for only college-educated or rich people."

It took only one visit from violinist Ruben Gonzalez for the kids at Sullivan to appreciate the rigors of playing the violin. "I think a lot of the kids, particularly the boys, assumed that the violin was some sort of sissy thing," says Podrovsky. "They had never seen anyone play the violin, much less a Hispanic man. Mr. Gonzalez had them stand and hold their arms in the air, as though they were holding a violin. They got a new perspective on what it takes to play that instrument. Some of the boys wound up taking violin lessons."

Other students, like Mason, come to class eager to learn an instrument. "Norman didn't have a lot of training when he started here, but he was an absolute whiz with a great ear," says Podrovsky. "He's a musical sponge. When CCM comes here he sits right by the piano, reading the music as they play. In the spring he played a duet with Larry [Combs]. Afterward he was asked what it was like playing with Larry, and Norman said, "It's better than playing with an amateur.' I love that. They're just so used to having these great musicians around."

Mason gets regular tutoring from Rick Ferguson, a CCM fellow and pianist. He plays in the All-City Jazz Band, an orchestra featuring the best players in the public schools. And he plans to study music in college. "I practice every day all the time," says Mason. "Dedication and practice, that's what it takes to be great. That's what I have learned from Rick and Larry. I like to follow them when they're playing, especially Rick. That way I can incorporate some of their techniques. Rick might do a chord transition that I want to imitate. They're expanding my horizons."

Recently, Combs brought a newly formed combo to play jazz for Mason's music appreciation class. As Combs explained to the students, he makes his living playing classical music, but his first love remains jazz. "Oddly enough, we had never played together before this morning," Combs told his audience. "But musicians accumulate standards. You call a tune and everyone knows it. It's sort of like good basketball players scrimmaging on the court."

They then kicked into Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." Brazil, the school's principal, sat in the back of the room, keeping time with his foot. For the most part the students were attentive, although one girl put her head on her desk and slept.

"They can learn so much from watching this group play," Sobol said afterward. "It's a collaborative effort, so the kids can learn about playing on a team. Everyone gets to solo, so they learn how to take turns. What's amazing is that they have Larry playing for them. I tell them to imagine if Andre Dawson came to practice with the baseball team. That's what Larry is in his world--another Andre Dawson."

A few days later Combs returned for the annual CCM-Sullivan Gala Concert. The auditorium was bedecked with colorful bunting and balloons. After several students performed recitals, Podrovsky, Dittemore, and Bruce Harris, the school's registrar, joined Combs for a spunky rendition of "Honeysuckle Rose." When Harris played a drum solo, the students cheered with delight. "The kids will never realize how much we enjoy playing for them," says Schmuck. "It's a magical moment when you have the chance to introduce someone to the beauty of music."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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