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Fiddling around


ON TUESDAY afternoon, student members of the All Philadelphia Middle School String Orchestra rehearsed a new fiddle piece with the man who composed it, Philly's internationally known jazz musician John Blake Jr.

The orchestra will perform "Fiddle Fun" in a premiere concert at 7 tonight, part of the first All-Philadelphia Middle School Music Festival at Irvine Auditorium, 34th and Spruce streets.

The chance for the students to work with jazz violinist Blake, as well as American folk fiddler Mark O'Connor, came about thanks to a joint venture between the Philadelphia School District and Musicopia, a nonprofit organization that encourages music education.

Musicopia, formerly known as Strings for Schools, was founded in 1974 after public schools in the Philadelphia region began cutting back on music programs, said Denise Kinney, its executive director. The organization secured a $40,000 grant from the Philadelphia Music Project to bring the two world-class musicians to work with Philadelphia students, said Kinney.

During Tuesday's rehearsal, Blake first asked the 85-member orchestra to clap out the beat. Then, the young violinists used their fingers to pluck out the notes to "Fiddle Fun," while Blake played with his bow.

They started over and began to clap again.

"No, no, no. You're a little too fast," Blake gently corrected the students.

"You're rushing it," called out one of the school district music teachers scattered among the different sections of the orchestra. The string orchestra, along with the 115 members of the All Philadelphia Middle School Concert Band, had come from 44 public schools to rehearse at Austin Meehan Middle School in Mayfair.

Finally, the students clapped the eight-count beat, six slower claps with two quicker claps at the end. They had the rhythm. It was time to play.

The students will get additional help with their fiddling when Blake and O'Connor conduct a "Fiddlin' Jazz" workshop with both the string orchestra and the concert band today.After Tuesday's rehearsal at Meehan, Blake said he was impressed with the students' focus.

"I loved it," Blake said. "It was a new piece and they were great!"

Although he's famous for jazz, Blake knows something about bluegrass, too. In 2004, he was a musician-in-residence at East Tennessee State College, and for the six months he was there, he joined a bluegrass band.

"I thought I should get to know a little about the music in the area," he said.

And it's not the first time Blake has worked with O'Connor, either. He has taught in O'Connor's summer fiddle camps for a number of years.

Reached by telephone last week, O'Connor said he believes in exposing young musicians to all kinds of music.

"String [music] education is a very viable art form for children to be a part of," he said. "And it's not just about classical music, but it includes the jazz violin, American fiddling along with Beethoven."

Virginia T. Lam, supervisor of music education for the school district, said the district is trying to rebuild its music education program, which was once considered a model for the rest of the country.

"We've had a massive campaign to restore music in the last five years," Lam said. "Our goal is to bring back those glory days."

Over the last five years, the district was able to use some of its bond money after the state takeover to purchase some $2 million in musical instruments, Lam said.

During that time, the district added eight new string orchestras in elementary and middle schools and brought back bands in nine schools. VH1 provided $900,000 in musical instruments citywide.

After Tuesday's practice, 11-year-old Sean Bennett walked out into the hallway from the rehearsal room still playing his violin. Other students were packing their instruments away.

Sean, a fifth-grader at McCall Elementary, has been playing for only a little more than two years. But he wakes up at 5 each morning to practice.

He gets dressed for school and then practices again before leaving in the morning. Then, after school, he practices again. "When I play, it calms me down," he said.

Asked if he could see himself with a career in music one day, perhaps with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Sean had a calm, matter-of-fact answer: "That's what I'm working on." *