To the rhythm of tap clap clap, oboist Kyle Bruckmann accompanied a group of fourth graders from Willow Oaks Elementary School at a concert Wednesday (May 29).
In the informal concert venue, made up of several parking spaces enclosed by yellow and blue streamers in front of Cafe Zoe in Menlo Park, the students performed the percussive taps, claps, and running-in-place footfalls that accompanied the oboe in a composition the students themselves had written.
Bruckmann is part of a classical quintet called Quinteto Latino, which is led by French hornist and Menlo Park resident Armando Castellano. The Bay Area-based quintet plays music by Latino composers and has been working together for 15 years. In addition to Castellano and Bruckmann, the quintet's other members — Diane Grubbe, Shawn Jones and Leslie Tagorda — play the flute, bassoon and clarinet, respectively. Substituting for Tagorda Wednesday was clarinetist Rafael Maldonado.
The concert was the culmination of about eight music lessons Castellano taught to the fourth grade classes at Willow Oaks Elementary.
The schools he works with, he explained, are typically those without many musical instruments, where kids don't often have access to private music lessons. He also prioritizes working with students who are Latino: "100% of our schools are with majority Latinx students," Castellano explained.
In his music lessons, he said, he tries to meet students at their level of knowledge.
Some students had seen bar-and-staff music notation before, so they drew some lines and notes out for the musicians to play, not knowing exactly what the notation represented. Others had seen music written with letters followed by "maj" or "min" for major or minor keys. So he played for them what those keys sound like.
Castellano explained that his fellow musicians don't miss a beat with these "alternative" modes of composition. They improvise and focus with the students more on the broader elements of creativity and musicianship and less on the specifics of Western music notation.
In the piece that Bruckmann performed with the students, he explained, the theme was about a subject near to students' hearts: basketball. Basketball has "B" and "A" in it, the students said, so they asked him to play those notes. Like basketball, he explained to the students, music takes teamwork.
The lively audience included other fourth graders, their teachers, community members and Ben Frandzel, an engagement officer for Stanford Live, the organization that sponsors this music program.
Frandzel explained that Stanford Live supports this music program at five schools in the Ravenswood City School District to bolster what can be limited art and music opportunities in the financially struggling district. The initiative focuses on equity in access to arts, he explained, and has professional musicians work in the schools to teach music.
Castellano said he started Quinteto Latino due to what he saw as the underrepresentation of works by Latino composers performed among classical music groups, as well as Latino people among classical music performers.
"I'm almost always the only Latino in an orchestra, (and there's been) very little change since I was young," he added.
He aims to make others think twice about the composers they put on the program for orchestras and ensembles, he said.
Flutist Grubbe explained that the group also works to commission new compositions. A few years ago they put on a contest for composers who identify as Latino or Latina, and got 60 or 70 submissions, she said.