Shady Brook Elementary students raise their hands during the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth's "Building Blocks of Music" program. (Marcheta Fornoff | Fort Worth Report)

Just before students trickle into a classroom at Shady Brook Elementary, members of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth unpack items for their music class.

They have items you might expect, like a french horn and flute, along with some unexpected items: a garden hose, funnel and conch shell.

Every piece is part of a bigger effort to expand access to music education. Through grant funding the group is able to take their “Building Blocks of Music” on the road to public schools and community organizations for free.

“We feel like we have a duty to do some type of educational outreach,” said Michael Francis, Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth’s president. “We want to be sure that we pass on this love of music … even if they don’t become musicians, to give them something that they’ll have and enjoy all their lives.”

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Alton Adkins, who plays french horn with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and is a contractor for the chamber, got the idea to write a curriculum after he gave a speech to non-musicians in college.

“I thought, ‘How do I talk about music when they don’t have a language of music?’” he said. 

But he knew that if he played a song listeners would be able to identify if the track was loud or soft, which would help them learn the corresponding musical terms forte and piano. He thought of other opposites, like fast and slow, that would help them describe what they heard. 

“I played a couple of pop tunes for them … and they would raise their hands and say, ‘Well, that’s that’s happy, that’s fast, that’s slow, that’s choppy.’ And then I started to use classical music,” he said.  

He uses a similar approach when he walks into classrooms today.

Students are handed paper paddles, like you might see at an auction, but instead of numbers, the paddles have words.

As the students listen to music, they are asked to hold up the paddle that corresponds with the change in the music. Students with paddles that say adagio, hold it up when the tempo slows down. Paddles that say allegro rise when the tempo speeds up.

Throughout the lesson, students learn about the different types of instruments ranging from woodwinds to brass, strings and percussion.

Bringing a small group of musicians into the classroom, rather than a full orchestra, helps keep costs low. Notes on the history of the instruments, like how some early flutes were made from bone, are supplemented with live demonstrations and short videos.

Adkins described the bends of brass instruments like trombones and french horns and demonstrates that the sound travels similarly to a coiled garden hose with a funnel on one end and his mouthpiece on the other. 

The students in Mary Margaret Haraden’s Shady Brook Elementary classroom excitedly raised their hands to answer every question put before the group. They had elaborate ideas when asked to describe the mood of each piece and what stories the music communicated.

After listening to a flute performance, one student said the song “sounded like standing on the bridge watching leaves fall into a river.”

“They were mesmerized by these other instruments in their room where they usually only see string instruments, so that was fabulous for them to get to see that,” Haraden said. “They also don’t usually see me play anything except the music they know. So I think it was fun for them to get to see me play something different.”

Natasha Costello, director of education for the chamber and a flutist, said it was exciting to see the students bounce ideas off of one another.

“I usually get to teach one student at a time for a 30-minute lesson, and I love getting to know the kids. But it’s so nice to be able to present in front of a big group,” she said.

She hopes that students who take the class will be inspired to take more music lessons and expand the pool of classical music lovers. Her colleagues concurred.

“It’s all about the love of music, passing on the love of music and … hopefully giving them a passion,” Adkins said. “They can, like us, get obsessed with music to the point that we’re practicing 4 hours a day, not because we have to, but because we want to. And if you can pass along that kind of passion and zeal for the music, that makes all the difference.”

Through grant funding, the group hopes to be able to take this curriculum to more classrooms and organizations in Fort Worth, especially for students who might not otherwise have access. 

“The value of music education, like sports, is that it builds self-esteem,” Francis said. “And it builds discipline … it builds skills for life.” 

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...