Santa Maria Sun> Art & Events > Art Monday, Oct 2, 2023     Volume 23, Issue 79   
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Exploring sound
The Santa Maria Philharmonic's Music Van gives students hands-on experience
By Shelly Cone

Making noise: Brass instruments are favorites of third-grade students participating in the Music Van program. Dominick Ballard-Brown (left) and Shiloh Gray (right), play the trumpet.


A vibration is what causes a woodwind, percussion, or string instrument to produce a sound. It's also the almost tangible energy produced by a class of third grade students waiting help make those sounds.

Children in Lisa Savaso and Lise Pawley's class shifted, moved, and bounced up and down in their seats as they learned how to work various orchestra instruments. It was a raucous reprieve from the routine at Joe Nightingale Elementary School as the kids participated in the Santa Maria Philharmonic Music Van program, which reaches third-grade students throughout the Santa Maria Bonita and Orcutt Union school districts, providing an introduction to musical instruments.

Diane Borad-Mirken, a former second-grade schoolteacher and now the program's presenter, gave an animated demonstration on how each instrument works. She looked every bit the part of a music educator in a shirt boasting a sheet music pattern. Her earrings were covered with notes, too.

She explained to the class why each instrument produces a different sound in terms that the students could understand.

"Think of a little dog," she said before barking with a high-pitched yip. "Now think of a big dog," she continued, this time producing a low-pitched bark.

Then she explained that bigger chords have a lower sound and shorter chords have a higher sound. She drove her point home by showing a picture of a bassoon--an instrument too big to bring to the presentation.

"This is a bassoon," she said. "If you cover up the 'oon' you get bass."

She played 30-second samples of a professional playing each instrument before letting the students loose to touch, pick up, and play for themselves.

The program targets third-graders, because in the fourth grade they have the opportunity to play in the school's band and see a performance of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. Having been exposed to the orchestra a year before allows for a richer buying experience.

Marye Mariscal, a Philharmonic board member and chairman of the organization's Children's Events committee, said that the element of touch is what sets this program apart from others.

"A lot of times they get presentations they can't touch. The ability to touch is just huge for them," she said. "They just have lots of joy and lots of excitement."

Although there aren't statistics that show how many students exposed to the program go on to play an instrument, Borad-Mirken has anecdotal evidence. She said that she ran into someone who said they are giving their grandson private violin lessons (strings aren't a part of the fourth-grade band) because he really wanted to play one after experiencing the Music Van program.

Borad-Mirken said she enjoys presenting the program and watching the children learn.

"I love sharing the excitement of music and being in front of the children again," she said.

Evelyn Dykeman, a volunteer for the music van and officer in the Philharmonic, remembered helping a child try out a brass instrument.

"He made a sound and he just lit up with a big smile," she said. "Then his teacher rushed over and said, 'This is the first time I have ever seen that child smile.'"

The instruments are separated into stations--strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion--and the students visit each group. Dykeman hosted the percussion station at the June 6 presentation. One of the first rules of Dykeman's station is to pay attention.

"All eyes on me," she told the first group of students. "You'll hear lots of funny noises from behind you, but keep your eyes on me."

Over blasting horns and screeching woodwinds, Dykeman quickly introduced her table of percussion instruments before setting her group on them.

"You can imagine, with almost 30 children playing music, sometimes it's just cacophony," she said.

The Philharmonic volunteers didn't seem to mind a bit as they disinfected mouthpieces and helped students intent on producing a musical note.

The program, which visits one school a day for about seven weeks, gets help from about six or seven volunteers who work with the students and haul instruments to and from a van that Saturn of Santa Maria allows the program to use for free. The volunteers vary in age and musical

ability, but all possess a dedication to sharing their love of music.

"For some of these students, this is the only exposure they will get," Dykeman said.

Windy day: A Philharmonic volunteer assists students (left to right) Alexandra Huitron, Carsen Coffey, and Makenna Gitchell, with the clarinet at the woodwinds station.


Top brass: Steve Esparza tries his hand at the trombone.


Arts Editor Shelly Cone is still trying to master the triangle. Send her a note at


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