Class hits the right note with children


Jeanne Ruviella-Knorr passed out bright green tennis balls to the second-graders sitting in four rows on the floor of the William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary School music room and then turned on a CD of Stars and Stripes Forever by John Philip Sousa.

The pupils rolled the tennis balls to the sound of flutes; tapped the tops, pretending to play piccolos; mimicked a trombone slide; and bounced the tennis balls to the drumbeat.

"Tennis balls are just one of the things that I use to engage the children in creative improvisational musical activities," Ruviella-Knorr said.

Ruviella-Knorr, 65, uses a variety of props and games at the school's Old Post Road building in Abingdon when she teaches a music program she created.

Ruviella-Knorr's program teaches music through the traditional methods such as singing, playing instruments and improvisation, but adds movement activities and solfege - the scale system - exercises.

For example, during a recent music class, the pupils played maracas, tapped rhythm sticks, passed beanbags, bounced tennis balls and moved scarves to music.

"Everything in the program relates to locomotor movement, which involves moving from point A to point B, and nonlocomotor movement that involves anything that you can do with your body in one place," said Ruviella-Knorr.

Colleague Michael Jothen, who has served as the chairman of music education at Towson University for the past eight years, said the program is top notch.

"Jeanne's program is one of the top 5 percent of all programs in the country that I have seen," said Jothen, who authored the Music and You textbooks with Ruviella-Knorr in 1987.

"Her ability to bring goose bumps to children's lives is exceptional," said Jothen, who has been a music educator for 40 years. "She makes the powerful connection between music and movement, and in the process she has established that which helps children see the magic of music at a heightened level."

Ruviella-Knorr started her music career 44 years ago after she earned a bachelor's degree in 1962 from Boston University. While working on her master's degree at the University of Southern California, she taught music at an elementary school in Los Angeles. She earned her doctorate in 2004 from the University of Maryland.

She taught at various schools and colleges before settling in Maryland in 1974. She began teaching in 1979 at what is now Towson University. Her courses prepare teachers and keep them in touch with current strategies and techniques.

Her curriculum comprises courses she established as part of a certification program.

Ruviella-Knorr combines German composer Carl Orff's instrument-based program with Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly's voice-based and Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze's eurythmics-based programs.

Her variation of the Dalcroze-Orff-Kodaly program is different because most teachers don't use props such as scarves and tennis balls, she said, but these items help to make music fun.

"If music isn't fun, the music instructor has to find a way to make it fun," said Ruviella-Knorr. "Kids aren't going to go home and say, 'I learned duple meter today'; they are going to go home and say, 'I bounced a tennis ball in music today.'"

Some teachers choose not to use the props or the teaching method, said Ruviella-Knorr, who also serves as a music education consultant.

"The thought of 25 or so children armed with rhythm sticks or tennis balls scares some teachers," said Ruviella-Knorr. "They have visions of children throwing the balls all over the room or conking each other in the head with the sticks."

Ruviella-Knorr said teachers should establish rules at the beginning of the school year. If the rules are broken, the pupils don't get to participate, she said. Usually that's all it takes.

"The kids enjoy it so much, they don't want to do anything that may prevent them from doing the activities," she said.

Gabrielle Elphic, 7, of Edgewood said she likes "learning rhythms and beats with Dr. Jeanne. When I tell people I used tennis balls in music class, everyone is amazed."

Pupils' excitement is one thing that led Ruviella-Knorr back to elementary schools after 26 years of teaching college students. She also wanted to see what the youngsters could do. She was surprised to find they could handle a more challenging curriculum.

"I had not expected that they could perform the level of activities that I am currently giving them," said Ruviella-Knorr.

As a result, she fine-tuned her lessons to include more complicated rhythms.

"Sometimes when I have to learn something new in school, it's hard," said Timothy Dawson, 8, of Abingdon. "But Dr. Jeanne shows us something new every week, and we just play games and use fun stuff like scarves. It's always easy."

Ruviella-Knorr said there are a number of other benefits to using the program.

Among them is development of social interaction through working with groups or partners, learning to use props and play and handle instruments, increasing self-discipline and having diversity in activities.

"I try to never repeat the same activity twice," said Ruviella-Knorr. "It leaves the kids always wanting more."

Ruviella-Knorr still teaches graduate students and teachers throughout the county and state.

"Jeanne has taught most of the teachers in our schools, and she has brought an excitement to the program," said Jim Boord, supervisor of music education for the county schools. "She touches on all the elements of music and brings them to life."

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