Don’t Touch the Horsehair: An afternoon observing Davis King

Davis King

Mike Grittani

It’s Halloween. I am sitting in an elementary school on the southwest side of Chicago, observing an interaction between a student and a violin teacher.  Sebastian, a third grader, is dressed as a vampire. The teacher, Davis King, asks him if it would be easier to play without the plastic vampire teeth in his mouth.  “No, I need them to play” retorts Dracula-Sebastian. Davis acquiesces and music is made, fangs and all.

The school is Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy. The room is lavender and the books are bilingual. La habitación es lavanda y los libros son bilingües. The class is part of the Merit School of Music’s Bridges Program, which brings music education to dozens of schools across the city. At the front of the classroom a large, touchscreen smartboard has been drilled into the original chalkboard.  In front of the smartboard a tall, gifted musician drills students on the fingerings for Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  The teacher asks his class, “Can we play The Bread, please?” In unison, the students deftly play the first eight notes of Twinkle. This is a microcosm of what makes Davis King a masterly pedagogue. In this instance, Ternary Form has become an accessible concept to this group of young musicians through his sandwich metaphor: A/B/A composition becomes Bread/Meat/Bread.

During the 2014/15 and 2015/16 seasons, Davis King was a Civic Orchestra violist and Fellow. He recently was invited to be a guest lecturer to the current Civic Fellows, where he discussed his passion for music education and offered pointers on classroom management. In the 2016/17 season, each of the fourteen Fellows teach at a community youth orchestra program run by The People’s Music School, so Davis’ words of wisdom were welcome. He pointed out that for many of their students the one-hour music lessons, at the end of a long school day, are some of the most individualized attention they will receive all week. After his lecture, Davis invited some of the Fellows to observe him teach.

It is the respect he generated from his students which I found so impressive. For example, Davis presented a violin bow to the class and asked “What do I say about the horsehair?” The kids could not wait to impress Mr. King with their memorization skills.  They chorused back, “DON’T TOUCH THE HORSEHAIR!”

When he spoke to the Fellows about classroom management, Davis described a game he plays to focus the students — The Distraction Game. When we observed his classroom we were able to see this activity firsthand. Davis had his class of 12 first-graders stand with their violins in playing position. He asked them to demonstrate perfect form and then freeze in place.  Next, he went from student-to-student trying to distract them. He placed a toy pig on Peter’s head but Peter remained steadfast. Davis surveyed the still students for a moment and then placed another toy on Olivia’s violin.  She suppressed a smile and remained locked-in.  “Alexander is standing very impressively,” Davis denoted to the whole class – he is a big proponent of praise — and then the exercise was done and the students were focused and ready to learn.  They end each lesson by bowing to each other.

After the lesson on proper form, Davis tells his students that some of the visiting Fellows will show as well as play their instruments for the kids.  The excitement generated by the students is palpable. The first Fellow up is Patrick.  Patrick tells the group he is from New York City.  The kids are beside themselves with this information.  Impromptu high-fives break out amongst the boys.  Patrick introduces his piccolo. “Like the one from Dragon Ball Z?!?” a student asks.  Then the flute makes its debut and Patrick plays a biting high note and the kids cover their ears. The stinger is quickly followed by the bird’s theme from Peter and the Wolf, a fan favorite.

Next up was Evan on bass. Seeing a six-foot relative of their violin clearly was not something the kids had anticipated. One of the students held up his tiny, beginner violin to the gigantic string instrument.  I wasn’t sure if the student was comparing the sizes or offering it as a sacrifice to the big, bad bass. Evan, neither missing a figurative nor proverbial beat, jumped into the Jaws theme and, once again, impromptu high-fives were all around.

After Evan is Kristin on oboe, who asks the class if they know the name of her instrument. “Clarinet!” they exclaim. The diminutive double-reed mouthpiece and Kristin’s playing draws them back on track.  Corin follows on the horn.  Corin asks them to name the coiled brass instrument. “Tuba!” No. “Trumpet!” Closer. “Trombone?” Corin takes back the helm and shows the class how embouchure leads to mouthpiece which leads to tone.  The class is impressed.  Corin ends by dedicating a rendition of Happy Birthday to his mother, Ruth.

In the end ovations were given by the students to the Fellows and then by the Fellows to the students.  A visiting group of third graders played their Halloween-themed song for us (think, Farandole with diminished glissandos) and we all went on our way. A big thank you to our host, Davis King, for allowing us to observe his classrooms, for his mentorship and for putting so much good into this world.