College students, children find self-expression through music

dhinshaw@thestate.comNovember 26, 2013 

Jonathan Pizarro handed his cello, the soulful instrument played by his brothers before him, to an 8-year-old perched in the upstairs hall of the Family Shelter.

The boy, wearing good-behavior stickers on his white Polo shirt, took up the bow and slid it across a string. A deep, rich note from an instrument bigger than he is echoed through the house. He stared straight ahead, intent on the sound coming from beneath his hands.

In other rooms of the homeless shelter, USC college students who discovered music when they were children themselves encouraged their buddies to sing and play — to strum a ukulele, plunk a keyboard or beat rhythms on the floor.

“I’m really hoping we pass along a love of music,” said Pizarro, 20, a mechanical engineering major who joined Communities in Harmony this year.

In two years, the group has grown from 21 students in the USC honors college to 40 students from across campus who now take their music — and enthusiasm — to children at two shelters, one school and a city park every week.

The instruments they play vary, depending on who shows up on a given evening.

Sometimes, their hour-long sessions have a theme, like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” for Halloween or Disney’s “Pocahontas” for Thanksgiving.

But the lesson is always the same: Self-expression.

The kids get that.

So do the college students.

Fifth-graders Leayzia Shiver and Jaleesa Colon sat side-by-side on the floor of the gym at J.P. Thomas Elementary School Thursday, listening as Viktor Lazarov played a phrase of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.”

“I like how you can relate to it,” Leayzia said. “When it means something to you.”

Across the room, Samantha Crandall was leading a game.

A 19-year-old music major, Crandall said participating in the volunteer program has taught her not every performance has to be perfect.

“I’m not being judged; I’m not being scored; I just have to sing and enjoy myself,” she said.

After saxophone player Michael Owens hit a bad note, he asked if anyone heard his horn squeak. Then he passed along a tip that applies to a lot of things in life.

“If something goes wrong and you just keep going,” he said, “no one will notice.”

Michael Hood, a pre-med student who plays guitar and piano, was one of the founders of Communities in Harmony.

“We’re not teachers,” he said. “We’re just students who play music. A lot of us are science majors.”

“The kids love to move,” he said. “Our first couple of sessions, we tried all of us playing a piece for the kids, but that didn’t work. You have to keep them involved and find a way to channel that after-school energy,” he said.

“Sometimes they’re tired and sometimes it’s a bad day; they don’t want to participate,” he said.

In fact, people who’ve watched the USC students develop Communities in Harmony say the children look forward to the time they get to spend with creative college students, playing music.

Matt Warner, wearing a “My Carolina” T-shirt, said kids love his tuba because it makes a weird sound and it’s big.

After a guessing game, Warner revealed to the kids that his tuba would be 20 feet long, up to the ceiling, if it unraveled. It weighs 25 pounds.

He played “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Old MacDonald” and — owing to the excitement third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are already feeling about Christmas — “Jingle Bells.”

Some sang along.

Some just watched.

Warner said he joined the group because it makes him happy.

“If it’s making the lives of kids better, it’s making mine better,” he said.

At the end of the session, the group got in a big circle for a chant, “Little Sally Walker.”

Everyone knew the rhyme, which ends: “Hey, girl, do your thing, do your thing and switch.”

One person would strut through the middle of the circle, dance, do flips or cartwheels before tapping the next person to perform.

Some were too shy, but most seemed to enjoy being the center of attention.

The chant went on for several minutes before the school counselor called a halt to it.

“It’s over, people,” he yelled over the din. “You do want to go home, right?”

The response was unanimous.

“No-o-o-o-o-o!”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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