Lesson in democracy is music to students’ ears

Maia Quartet members give the presentation "Democracy in Action" to elementary school children in Iowa City.

Maia Quartet members give the presentation "Democracy in Action" to elementary school children in Iowa City. "Democracy in Action" is an interactive presentation with mock rehearsals featuring arguments about tempo, volume, and who gets the melody. This provides a practical lesson on how a group of strong-willed and talented individuals can compromise to make beautiful music. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Any fifth grader can look up “democracy” in a dictionary, but how do you bring a simple definition to life?

Simple. Set it to music.

That’s what the Maia Quartet, the faculty quartet-in-residence in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Music, is doing this year with fifth- and sixth-grade students in the Iowa City Community School District with a project called “Democracy in Action.”

Maia violinist Tricia Park, violist Beth Oakes, and cellist Hannah Holman—they’re currently searching for a second violinist—give an interactive presentation with mock rehearsals featuring arguments about tempo, volume, and who gets the melody. This provides a practical lesson on how a group of strong-willed and talented individuals can compromise to…well, to make beautiful music.

The idea to combine the study of democracy and music came when the quartet learned that fifth and sixth graders would be studying early Greek democracy. “It occurred to me that we have an organization without an official leader,” Oakes says. “It’s also interesting that Iowa has become such a big part of the democratic process with our caucuses. It was a chance to talk about the cradle of democracy and about how it works now.”

The development of “Democracy in Action” was much like the process it describes, Oakes notes. “Our script has changed because we see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to interacting with students. You get to understand the rhythm and how it’s going to go.”

It’s also fascinating to discover how the students react. “They’re curious about how much we move,” Oakes says. “It’s a shock to some people. And sometimes they cover their ears because the music is louder than they expect.”

Based on audience response, it appears that “Democracy in Action” is achieving its purpose.

As one observant student wrote, “The way you talked about how you guys have to argue and improvise was very cool. Even though I have been to many orchestras, I haven’t actually known what happened backstage. I guess quartets and trios have more latitude than orchestras because you don’t have a conductor.”

Maia’s members also are benefiting.

“Putting this program together has been very enlightening for us as a group,” says Holman. “We’ve come to realize just how much compromise and consensus happens every day in our rehearsals, very similar to the process of democracy that we are so fortunate to experience in this country. It has definitely been a growing and learning experience for us.”

“Democracy In Action” will culminate with a free “Family Concert” at 3 p.m., Saturday, April 30, in Riverside Recital Hall, 405 North Riverside Drive, Iowa City.

“We also realize that audience building is important for modern-day musicians,” Park adds. “Connecting with young students is a very real, tangible way to plant the seed of interest in classical music and string chamber music.”

Oakes credits the Iowa City Community School District Foundation with providing the grant funding for “Democracy in Action.” Especially deserving praise for their help are Candace Wiebener, who directs the City High Orchestra, and Vicki Arnold, coordinator of the elementary school music program, Oakes says.

Park notes that education has always been part of the quartet’s mission. Last year, the quartet went to Iowa City schools to share the music of Franz Joseph Haydn in observance of the 300th anniversary of his death.

What’s next? Perhaps a focus on music from different regions of the world or on composing and conducting. Or, just for the fun of it, humor, which Park has done in other settings. “After guiding students through the things that make music funny, the most gratifying thing was for them to listen for the humor in a Haydn quartet and to laugh at the right moments.”

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