Making Music Together


Last month, about 20 students ages 6 to 12, slowly coaxed “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” from their stringed instruments — some of which were bigger than the young musicians who played them — during a Baltimore Bows recital rehearsal.

Founded in September 2014 and led by Yonatan Grinberg and his wife, Andrea, Baltimore Bows is sponsored by the Baltimore Talent Education Center. BTEC, in its 40th year, provides about 20 Baltimore City schools with “progressive, afterschool music education programs for students from kindergarten to 12th grade, based on incremental learning, emphasizing parent involvement as well as community collaboration, like Baltimore Bows,” said executive director Kelly A.J. Powers.

Israeli-born Grinberg and his wife came to Baltimore from Chicago two years ago so he could pursue a doctorate in violin performance at the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. Several people in the Jewish community heard they had arrived and quickly reached out to them about music instruction.

“We saw that not only [was] there a need, but a desire to send kids to music lessons,” said Grinberg. “And either because of financial issues or because most programs run [lessons] on Shabbos … we saw a real need” to provide lesson and performance options that could work for the observant Jewish community.”

At the start of his doctoral studies, Grinberg taught music with BTEC in several schools and offered to start a program at Northwestern High School (also a BTEC site), he explained, because it is conveniently situated within a densely populated Jewish community. But Baltimore Bows — named by the students — is open to any child who wants to learn how to play violin, viola or cello. The cost for participation and instruments is subsidized through BTEC.

Yael Quittner is a member of the local homeschooling community so the timing and the affordability worked well for her family. Three of her sons joined the group; Heshy, 12, plays cello, Mendy, 10, plays viola, and Sruly, 9, plays violin.

“None of them had ever seen an instrument, not even held an instrument,” said Quittner. “It’s sparked such interest.” She added that all three children were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) but don’t use medication anymore because, she said, “the side effects were disastrous.” But when playing music, Quittner said of her children, “I’ve noticed it calms them down and also helps them to focus within other areas of their lives.”

Some ADHD-diagnosed children suffer from self-esteem issues because of constantly trying keep up with peers, she explained, and that’s one reason Quittner chose to homeschool her children.

But Heshy and Mendy played solos for their recent Chanukah recital concert, and “to be successful in something has boosted their self-esteem,” Quittner said. “[Playing music and performing] has been phenomenal in helping them feel good about themselves and stick with something.”

Yehudis Eagle’s son, Yishai, 10, plays viola with Baltimore Bows. Eagle is a big proponent in spreading the word about the program to other families, and many of her 11 children play instruments; some are very accomplished, so theirs has been a musical home for years.

“[Playing music is] very soulful, it’s a wonderful outlet for their neshamas, for their souls, and it brings joy to the household,” she said. “The accomplishment they feel— when they go to a lesson when they’ve prepared and the teacher is glowing about work they’ve done, then they advance and get more sophisticated on their instrument. [Music] is a language, and it’s a wonderful language to learn.”

Baltimore Bows meets twice a week for two hours. During the first hour, students receive one-on-one instruction — Grinberg on violin, Andrea on cello, and Sarah Lowenstein teaches viola. For the second hour the children play as an ensemble. The opportunity to play in a group at such a young age, said Grinberg, is another aspect that makes the program very unique.

Dr. Rena May Juni’s children attend Ohr Chadash Academy, and 10-year-old Hadassah plays viola and Ariela, 8, plays violin.

“Music is important in allowing children to listen to each other,” said Juni. “That’s a beautiful thing and an important thing for a child to learn. And you can only get that when you perform in an orchestra.”

The girls by their own desire, said Juni, practiced Chanukah songs Grinberg passed out to the class if anyone was interested in playing over the break. They accompanied the family during candle lighting.

“I think their ears are more tuned to music now,” said Juni, who heard about Baltimore Bows from her involvement in the Baltimore Jewish Mommies Facebook group. “They’re interested in music in a way they haven’t been before. We just came back from the library, and they wanted to get a book about orchestra and [books] on Mozart and other composers.”

BTEC director Powers is “dedicated to real music education for students” said Grinberg and has been with BTEC since 2009. Before that, she was a volunteer parent with the program, and music study and participation “opened up a whole new world” for her and her children, she said.

She added, “Only six out of 184 Baltimore City schools offer music instruction after third grade, compared with 100 percent of schools in Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.”

The multiple applications and proven benefits of incremental music studies on academic readiness and the limitations of access to some other programs (due to cost, auditions and location) emphasizes the importance of BTEC according to Powers.

The repercussions of playing with Baltimore Bows, which opens a section for new students Jan. 13, have echoed throughout the group. Juni’s daughter, Ariela, found out her school classmate was studying keyboards so they met on weekends to practice “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Quittner said she doesn’t need to ask her children to practice, and often when it’s time to set the dinner table or time for bed, she’ll hear instruments playing somewhere in the house.

Yehudis’ children played an impromptu concert for the family with some Chanukah music a family friend presented them, arranged especially for strings.

“Those moments cannot be evaluated,” she said. “To connect with each other in that way and deliver it to other people. I’m really happy [Yonatan and Andrea] landed here, it’s right in our daled amos, right in our territory, in our neighborhood.”

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