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Tuneful teaching

People of Note bring music into local schools

"The three Rs," reading, writing and arithmetic, are all integral components of any elementary school curriculum -- necessary for opening up a child's mind and paving the way for middle school, high school and beyond.

But according to Palo Alto resident Candy Pelissero there is a fourth "R" that is just as essential: art.

Pelissero is the vice president and spokeswoman for People of Note -- a local nonprofit dedicated to bringing music to elementary school students up and down the Peninsula through in-class performances and assemblies.

The way she sees it, music -- and, more broadly, the arts -- helps children to be stronger students and more creative individuals overall.

"Studies have shown that children who are exposed to music at an early age are often more prepared for math and the sciences," Pelissero said. Learning to play music with others also builds confidence, improves discipline and focus, and teaches children how to work together.

In addition to helping kids do better in subjects like math and science, music and the arts also breed creativity. Children who are exposed to arts and music from an early age can learn to look at the world in new and interesting ways, Pelissero said. Music, she added, has the ability to "open up (children's) minds"

Anna Vissers, the parent of a third grader who took part in an April 6 concert co-hosted by People of Note, echoed Pelissero.

"I truly believe art, in any kind of form, really opens their hearts," Vissers said, speaking about the importance of music in her daughter's education.

Vissers' daughter, Stella, is currently attending Montclaire Elementary School in Los Altos, and was one of 24 children who performed for a live audience at the recent concert, "This Pretty Planet," held at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. Stella and her peers served as the backup choir for Grammy-award-winning musician Tom Chapin.

People of Note got its start in the mid-'80s as a fundraising arm of Music for Minors -- a San Carlos-based organization that brings musical instruction to elementary schools all over the Bay Area. Music for Minors was originally founded in response to cuts in education funding, which came as a result in overall budget reductions in the wake of Proposition 13. Those cuts hit poorer elementary schools especially hard, according to Pelissero.

In 2002, People of Note broke off from Music for Minors. Though the two organizations continue to collaborate, People of Note focuses primarily on producing educational children's concerts, musical assemblies and music-based workshops for kids, in which a professional musician performs. Much of their work is aimed at children who attend underfunded and struggling schools.

"We believe that all children should be able to have access to live music," Pelissero said. While Music for Minors docents often teach the children to play instruments and sing songs, People of Note focuses on producing concerts, so that children can take in high-quality music and performance, which helps to reinforce the work of Music for Minors.

"If you can bring an artist into a school -- if they (the children) can actually see somebody singing or playing a guitar -- they can say, 'Oh, that's fun! Maybe we could do that.'"

By way of example, Pelissero recalled a young boy she saw in the audience at the April 6 concert. The child was using his hands to "conduct" the show. After the final song, Pelissero talked to the boy's mother, who told her that the youngster has plans to be a conductor when he grows up.

"Those are the kinds of things that make me so excited to work with children," Pelissero said.

Such a statement would likely please Chapin, as well. According to the children songwriter, People of Note and other similar organizations are doing extremely important work, especially since the passage of Prop. 13, he said. Many elementary schools have seen their music programs paired back and in poorer communities, music and arts programs have been eliminated entirely, he observed. That's where organizations like People of Note and Music for Minors are really a "big deal," he said.

"I truly believe that the arts and music are hugely important in our lives," Chapin said after his concert at the Palo Alto JCC.

He said he sees the children in the audience and the kids from Montclaire Elementary who joined him on stage as the future -- "It's the audience that is going to keep the arts alive as they grow up," the multi-instrumentalist said.

Getting children involved in the arts is not just important for the field's survival, Chapin said. He believes it is important for a strong economy, as it teaches children how to be creative and "think outside the box."

Pelissero agreed. Through Music for Minors and the events organized by People of Note, Pelissero said she hopes that children are learning to express themselves and think creatively. "I think we need more of that -- especially in Silicon Valley, where everyone is so over-booked and into making the new app," she said. "Let's take a step back and express ourselves in some other ways."

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