PUBLISHED: 4:50 PM on Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Students rock winter concert
Mendenhall River Community School
The families of Mendenhall River Community School students cheered loudly as 11 classes with more than 200 students sang, danced, and played their way through a lively winter concert on the evening of Dec. 5. There were holiday songs, instrumental performances, dancing, and lots of air guitar.

Choreographed by music teacher Michael Maas, the concert was part of a larger Holiday Arts festival, a two-hour event that showcased the school's art programs. District elementary art specialist Nancy Lehnhart and Mendenhall River teachers transformed the school into a gallery walk. Vibrant paintings, prints, pastels, collages, and portraits filled the halls, set off by twinkling while lights and live chamber music. And in the foyer, parents bid on original works by artist in resident Rob Logan and bought tempting desserts to support school programs.

The musical performances, however, were the evening's centerpiece and the culmination of a month's practice. Maas, who believes that music instruction should be fun, asked each of the school's primary classes to pick a song. Then, he helped them personalize their choice with movements and instruments.

Photo by Amy Steffian
  Music teacher Michael Maas at the keyboard.
"The concert wasn't all singing," said Maas. "I wanted to replicate what we do in class. We are learning to read music, so when one class picked Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I arranged it for some of our instruments to make it even more interesting."

Some classes chose to perform old favorites. Mrs. Meiner's second grade selected Frosty the Snow Man, and Ms. Canaday and Ms. Currier's classes teamed together on the folk classic Over the River and Through the Woods. Others picked more contemporary presentations. With an upbeat Run Rudolph Run, Ms. Connelley and Mr. Beck's second graders paid homage to Chuck Berry. Mrs. Henderson's students went the other direction, reaching back in musical history to learn the Blue Danube Waltz. Like each classes, however, they gave it their own twist, performing Johann Strauss on glockenspiel pieces, tambourines, and boomwhackers.

The lively show illustrated Maas's approach to music instruction. "All the things in the music curriculum can be taught with fun songs," said Maas. "Most people think of folk music as the focus of elementary music programs, but there is so much more children can learn from."

The concert also reflected Maas's education.

A 1993 graduate of the Juneau School District, Maas's fondest elementary school memories are of music classes with teacher Laurie Clough, who found opportunities for performance. Maas remembers performing on KTOO, traveling to Hoonah to share music, and accompanying his classmates on the piano.

As a Masters student at the University of Alaska Southeast, lessons on music and movement inspired Maas.

"Movement helps students to learn lyrics much faster. With that mind-body connection, they get it right away. Being able to move also helps them concentrate. It's hard to sit still and sing, music and movement go together."

Although Maas has been playing the piano since he was 7 and is known around Juneau for his CDs and performances with the Perseverance Theatre, the winter concert was his first as a music teacher.

"I really didn't know what to expect," said Maas. I helped the students practice till I knew they we're ready. It was fun to see how they blossomed in front of a live audience. The audience was so responsive, and the students were clearly proud of themselves and wanted to show off."

The show ended with two rock and roll numbers. As the crowd applauded the unique classroom performances the entire assembly of Kindergarten, First, and Second grade students swarmed to the center of the gym, grinning as a boom box blasted the first notes of Video Killed the Radio Star, the 1979 British pop song by the Buggles.

Students sang and boogied, playing air guitar and showing off their dance moves to the very enthusiastic crowd. It was clear they were enjoying themselves, and that they had learned a great deal about music since September.

Parent Jennifer Maier summed up the excitement.

"I have never been to a more exciting, dynamic and fun event, even as a child myself. I was so impressed with my little guy and all the children who performed. I couldn't hold back the tears as those children seemed to enjoy themselves so much. . .What an amazing display of teamwork, musical talent and physical activity."