Kids like to dance. They like to rock side-to-side; they like to move in general. Does that mean that they have an innate sense of rhythm, a Carnegie Hall performance, a Rhapsody in Blue crouching in their future somewhere? "Music study is a very significant commitment," says Lydia Kontos, executive director of the non-profit multi-arts Kaufman Center and president of its Special Music School, the first elementary school in the United States to give equal weight to musical study and musical practice within the course of a traditional school curriculum. Founded in 1996, the School (also known as P.S. 859) exists as a public/private partnership with the New York City Department of Education and the Kaufman Center, with full scholarships provided to each student through private donations to the Center. So it won't cost your family a dime to have your child attend the Special Music School. But as Kontos warns, the commitment is nevertheless a major one — and when she says that, she means for both child and parent. Along with the double-backed commitment, your child has to have the genes for it. The School's two-round assessment procedure may sound like an intimidating and oppressive introduction, but as Kontos points out, the idea is to give children the feeling that they're engaging in music play. "We want our assessment to be very child-friendly, accurate, and pleasant," says Kontos, and close in spirit to the openness practiced at the Lucy Moses School, one of the nation's largest community art schools. (Moses shares the public/private umbrella not only with the Special Music School, but also with the Merkin Concert Hall). Children entering kindergarten, first or second grade are not required to audition for the school with an instrument, although students in later grades are, due to the difficulty of catching up, Kontos says. She describes the assessors as looking for "a sense of rhythm, pitch, an engagement relating to music, musical memory, and a certain amount of creativity," with creativity the least focused-upon aspect. "Most children are innately creative, so we don't turn our attention so much to that," she states. The assessment's first round, for grades K-2, which lasts only about a half-hour for the child, is a one-on-one with the assessor involving simple tests such as identifying sounds as either similar or different; and a brief group situation involving no more than six children, in which activities such as clapping, singing and moving are used in a structured and "scoreable" manner, "but don't feel that way," Kontos says. Children who score adequately in the first round are then called back for the second, slightly lengthier individual round, in which teachers from Lucy Moses guide additional activities. (Candidates in grade three and up are asked to play three or four pieces on their instrument, along with scales and arpeggios, and are expected to take a written theory test and a brief ear-training test involving singing). The assessment may seem, overall, as if it hinges purely on judgment, on the assessor's ability to smell talent without having to rely on harder facts. "If you're assessing that a child has good rhythm, it's more quantifiable than most people think; the creativity part, that's the least quantifiable," Kontos remarks. "Engagement — that's pretty obvious. By and large, musical assessment is not an instinctive process. But we're not out to determine right or wrong either." The School's ability to make informed assessments is reflected in its low enrollment: Only 15 students per grade (from grades K-8) are currently served. Music is the key ingredient, but here the logistical and aesthetic qualities of the art are brought to bear on the structure of other disciplines, making it the entry point to arithmetic, reading, writing, science, geography, and history. Academic records never factor into the School's assessment procedure, although its own academic achievements rank consistently high; in October 2000, it ranked first, at 100 percent, in meeting proficiency standards in fourth and eighth grade math exams, and first in reading. About 80 percent of the students' time is spent working on academic subjects, with two private lessons per week on an instrument and at least three other music classes, which may include Theory; Solfege (the essentials of music theory — tonality, rhythm, tempo); Chorus; Music History; and Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a learning method developed by Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. In addition to academic achievement, music study, Kontos states, supplies a less immediately recognizable benefit; it helps children establish focus and provides what she calls "deferred gratification". "Studying music, a child starts with nothing, then they master scales, they master the works. They start with nothing, but in short order, before they know it, they know it — they master one thing. And they master something else, then something else, and that's a tremendously valuable learning tool in our society, where everything is so instantaneous. Music is a gratifying way to understand time, and the time that things really take to get done." Kontos credits the existence of the Lucy Moses School for setting the standard by which the Special Music School operates and thrives, but stresses the importance of having parental participation to ensure full success. "The School is a remarkable and wonderful and fabulous place for a child, if — and this is a big if — the parents are committed to having music as a major part of their child's learning experience, " she says, referring to the nightly musical practice that goes along with the more traditional homework. "If the child doesn't have the interest, or the support, it can ruin them for music. Studying music is a little like athletics; it's about repetition. You keep working on it until you bring up your strength, and the parent needs to monitor that. The parent doesn't have to be musically inclined to help — they just have to be aware of what's on their child's plate."
The Special Music School is located at the Goodman House, 129 West 67th Street. For more information, call (212) 501-3390 or go to www.ekcc.org. (Note: Although located in District 3 — 59th Street to 121st Street on the Upper West Side — students from all five boroughs are eligible to apply).