SVMS Orchestra ‘Gives Bach’ to Students With Special Needs

SVMS Orchestra ‘Gives Bach’ to Students With Special Needs

May 20, 2024

By Landon Hall

Abby Han took her cello from child to child, showing him or her how it works. You tug the string, and thrum, music comes out, like magic. With one boy, she took his index finger and showed him how to pluck one of the four big strings. Thrum. A smile appeared on his face.

You don’t just hear music, of course, you feel it. And about 30 children with special needs at Portola Springs Elementary School really get to feel it, up close, when the kids from Sierra Vista Middle School come to perform.

“I was actually really excited for it, and I was a little nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect,” said Abby, a 7th grader who is 13. “Then I realized I didn’t have anything to be nervous about. It was just really exciting and new for me. It was a really good experience to talk to those kids and introduce them to instruments. It was a special experience.”

Sierra Vista has been performing here annually for six years, and the visit is made possible through a grant from the Irvine Public Schools Foundation. The Sierra Vista instrumental music program’s director, Henry Miller, leads the school’s chamber orchestra class in public performances and several community events, including the Giving Bach program. Giving Bach was started by Richard Meyer and his advanced orchestra students at Oak Avenue Intermediate School in Temple City, California, northeast of Los Angeles, in 2009.

“I ask students to consider the word ‘music,’ ” said Miller, who has been teaching at Sierra Vista for 21 years, and 33 overall. “There is the word ‘I’ and the word ‘us.’ My goal is to take the ‘I’ out and make it more about ‘us.’ Before we go on our field trip, I ask the students to write down the number one reason why they make music. 95% used ‘I’ statements — what they want to do for themselves. A small number like to be able to engage. My goal is to try to turn that around: to think about for whom we’re actually playing. To make them realize what they do has impact. Especially kids who don’t ordinarily get to see live orchestral music.”

On a Wednesday morning in January, the student players from Sierra Vista, wearing black Giving Bach T-shirts, took their places onstage in the multi-purpose room at Portola Springs. They tuned up their violins, violas, cellos and basses as the kids with special needs came in and set up in the audience. The players began with a song everyone knows by now: “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” from “Frozen.” Miller then had small groups of players show off their instruments. “Oasis for Basses,” part of the “Serendipity Suite” composed by none other than Richard Meyer, is a fun one.

Then the most rewarding part for the Portola Springs kids: When the players came to them for show and tell. This is always part of the interactive performance, but last year, Miller discovered, because the children in the audience are sometimes exuberant with the wood and the strings, the instruments take wear and tear. Last year an instrument sustained a scratch, and another had a string broken. Some of the students (like the bass players) borrow their instruments from their school, but others had been bringing their personal instruments. “At that point I could not justify putting the students’ instruments in jeopardy,” Miller said. But they wanted to keep playing for the children. What to do?

Miller had written a few grants from IPSF over the years, so he made another ask, and the foundation delivered: $11,296 for an IPSF Innovative Grant in 2023, to pay for instruments meant just for this performance and others like it.

The impact of the annual visit is obvious for the special needs children, who have moderate to severe levels of disability. Some have difficulty communicating, or even sitting still for lessons, meant to help prepare them to be more independent out in the world. The aides who help them say that during the Sierra Vista performances the kids are engaged, listening intently or moving to the music.

“We play music in the classroom, and you can see it calms them down, but when there’s that opportunity to have a live performance, and they get to see where the music is coming from, it’s something completely different,” says Frances Hernandez, an education specialist at Portola Springs who assisted Miller with his grant proposal and made a video testimonial for the program. “We see them smiling, we see the eye contact. It’s such a breakthrough moment. Aides have tears in their eyes. These Giving Bach concerts are so fulfilling for us as staff, and in speaking with the people who work here, it’s one of our favorite days here, because it’s just so reinforcing for why we’re here. We make a difference in these kids’ lives so they can enjoy a rich, fulfilling life outside the school.”

Hannah Kim, an 8th grader who’s 13, was here last year too, and she remembered some of the children. “They really loved it a lot,” she said. “They still look as excited every year.” Echoing what Miller said about the “us,” she says she loves playing the violin and viola for others, as well as herself. “I like being in an orchestra,” she said. “When I do solo, it’s really lonely sometimes.”

Like many of life’s beautiful things, music is better when we can enjoy it together.

Landon Hall is a freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor with the Associated Press and Orange County Register.