Students make keyboards sing
Arlys Whitaker can be found by the verdant hills of Deer Valley, teaching kids to sing in the resort’s summer music program, or, in the winter, teaching them to ski. But most of her time is spent teaching children from kindergarten through fourth-grade, the joys and applications of music when she visits them at McPolin and Trailside elementary schools.
According to Whitaker, it is hard for students to relate to black notes on paper if they have no instruments to make the notes dance so she began to teach kids to play the recorder. But she wanted to teach treble and base clefs, graduating to music played in different keys. For that, a piano is hard to beat.
At the end of April, 27 keyboards were delivered to Park City, to be shared by 600 elementary students at Trailside and McPolin. Whitaker had written a grant for the $100 keyboards, that are the size and shape of a piano keyboard without the piano. The Utah League of Credit Unions-Utah Credit Union Education Foundation in Salt Lake City, came through, making the music happen.
Each of the 600 students gets a once a week, 45 minute session in one of Whitaker’s classes. During what Whitaker says is a typical class, some students sit at tables with the concentration of poets, writing the story for an opera that will be performed next school year. On the other end of the room, McPolin student David Domonoske, 9, plays the piece "On Broadway," on one of the new keyboards, his fingers floating across the keyboard with a jazzy zest. His hands play the complex rhythm in the key of C major. Domonoske assists Whitaker helping fellow students learn the keyboard. He has been playing piano for two years, and it quickly becomes apparent he is naturally gifted. Whitaker is challenging him, bringing him to a new level.
As if keyboard training isn’t enough, Whitaker is introducing the students to opera. Is Richard Straus too complex for kids just getting the hang of balancing on a bike? Maybe not. Whitaker makes opera fun. Kids do not have to learn German and wear helmets with horns but they do get to write a story based on the common theme of Hansel and Gretel on skis and snowboards.
Here’s the thing: Hansel and Gretel not only ski and snowboard, but they end up getting lost in a cabin in the snowy woods. There, they start to dream, and that’s where the students enter, writing about the dreams of the dynamic duo will relate in the opera next year.
McPolin student Dana Fulmer, 10, has learned two scales on the recently introduced keyboards, and she discusses the operatic dream she is writing.
"I am riding a giant duck. A cheetah is chasing us, and suddenly the duck starts to fly to get away. We fly into the Amazon."
For those who think opera is esoteric, maybe even a waste of time, Whitaker says the kids love the introduction. Where opera used to have silly plots, she said, these days operas make more sense and are easier to follow that is, if you know Italian.
"Opera teaches kids so many things including a sense of drama, and experience in front of crowds," she said. "First, I teach kids to sing on pitch. So many kids start out singing in monotone. Singing opera teaches breathing to get the most out of your voice." A resonant voice gives kids confidence, especially in everyday speaking.
She has seen confidence boosts in students throughout the year. "You can see it in Freddy Perez. Freddy has come a long way. You can now see his confidence in the way he walks down the hall," Whitaker said.
Perez, 10, says he is writing his dream of going back to the future, with five friends. Of the keyboards, he said, "I didn’t know piano, but I do now."
Whitaker, who has lived in Park City since 2001, has an extensive background as a professional musician, followed by high level management experience in business. She has played both flute and piccolo in symphonies. She played principal flute performing in the Symphony orchestra accompanying Yanni when he played Cleveland in 1993, for example.
So her full symphony resume takes up pages. But why teach kids after attaining such a high level?
First, it is obvious she loves kids, and they love her. Even the young kids call her Arlys. And she knows their names. Likely 600 of them. She thinks it is essential to train kids in music while they are still malleable. "They don’t have any bad habits yet," she said. And, they have a "huge amount of parental support in Park City."
Whitaker, in her first year of teaching music to the Park City School district, says she already has a lesson plan for the next five years, and ideas for 10 years.
"I love what I’m doing now," she said. "Don’t tell anybody this," the intensely busy teacher says, "but I enjoy it so much, it feels like vacation.
Two people indicated in interviews they are considering mounting campaigns for the Park City Council, a signal the City Hall election could attract an intriguing slate of candidates in a year when the majority of the five seats are on the ballot.