Symphony plays at library, one instrument at a time

Why are they doing that, and which was the featured instrument when we visited Midland Library? Find out right here …

Oregon Symphony member Jeff Johnson talks about being a string bass player, and demonstrates the instrument for the children at Midland Library.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
There’s almost always something interesting happening at Midland Library, in the Mill Park neighborhood on SE 122nd Avenue.

On a rainy Saturday, early in March, we went to see Symphony Story Time, to learn about the program.

“This is for preschool age children and their families,” explained Monica Hayes of the Oregon Symphony. “It is important for young children to meet members of the orchestra family. Also we pair literature about music with music itself, so they get the most out of the experience.”

On successive Saturdays, the Oregon Symphony featured woodwinds…brass…and then percussion, in the library presentations.

When we visited, we met Jeff Johnson, a 16-year veteran of the Symphony. He was tuning up his string bass, getting ready to talk with the children.

“It’s important to get out into the community and reach audiences of varying sizes and ages that wouldn’t normally be exposed to this music,” said Johnson. “We don’t want to have our musical life restricted to the concert hall.”

The best part about playing a string bass, Johnson tells us, is that the musical parts they play form the “foundation of the orchestra. Being at the ‘bottom of the orchestra’, we have a chance to listen to the rest of the orchestra as it plays.”

The bass line, Johnson continues, is the foundation of all music. “Perhaps not so much in modern music, but certainly in jazz and standards. That’s another thing I like about the instrument; it’s so versatile. I’ve played many different types of music at one time or another.”

Midland Library children’s librarian Sue Ciesielski reads the story of “Berlioz The Bear”, as Johnson illustrates passages musically on his bass.

The bass and the bear
After the youngsters are seated, Johnson tells them about his life and times as a professional musician.

“When I was very young, I wasn’t tall enough to play the string bass.  My mother had me stand on a chair to be able to play the instrument. I’ll show you how I play it, and let you touch the instrument. Before we do that, my friend Sue and I are going to read some stories, and I’ll play along and supply some sounds to go with the story.”

The kids eagerly agree when he asks the question, “Does this sound like a good thing to do?”

With that, Sue Ciesielski, children’s librarian at Midland, opens and starts reading the storybook, “Berlioz The Bear”.

Johnson comments, “this has always been one of my favorite books, ever since I can remember.  Can you imagine why?”

As Ciesielski reads, Johnson musically illustrates the story on his bass, to the delight of the kids. The children look enraptured as the librarian and musician gently guide the next generation into the land of symphonic music.

After storytime, brother and sister, Matthew and Ruth Benzar, help the little kids make “shoebox violins”. “These show and demonstrate the structure of a violin,” says Matthew.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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