Returning to in-person instruction, Ms. Sharp's orchestra class doesn't hold back "I teared up the first time they had their instruments in their hands a couple of weeks ago," the cellist says at one of her first in-person classes at KIPP DC Northeast Academy in more than a year.
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Returning to in-person instruction, Ms. Sharp's orchestra class doesn't hold back

Camarillos Murray practices violin during Élise Sharp's orchestra class at KIPP DC Northeast Academy. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

As the group of about 20 eighth-graders rolls into the classroom silently — at a "level zero," as Ms. Sharp calls it — it's hard to imagine the bubbling, somewhat off-beat symphony that's about to come in a few short moments. It's a Thursday morning orchestra class in September, one of the first at KIPP DC Northeast Academy since classes returned to in-person learning, and a crucial one for determining whether the school year will start on the right note.

Nervous chatter and shuffling fills the room until the teacher speaks. When Ms. Sharp talks, the whole class is at attention.

Élise Sharp is a cellist for The String Queens, a power trio of Black women playing string instruments, and the middle school orchestra instructor at the Northeast Academy on Mt. Olivet Rd. NE. She starts each class with a "Do-Now," a one-sheet written assignment that requires students to identify notes on a page.

Élise Sharp leads the orchestra class. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

Then, Sharp calls students one by one to pick up a numbered instrument. COVID-19 has personalized music class this year: Students are assigned their own violins, violas, cellos, standing basses, keyboards, and percussion sets (empty 5-gallon buckets), depending on the instrument they chose at the beginning of the school year. In previous years, students shared instruments.

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Sharp organizes the instruments by racks labeled with names of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, each one corresponding with a different level of experience. (Some students have been playing since fifth grade, while others have never picked up an instrument before.)

She reflects on what playing together again means for her students.

"I teared up the first time they had their instruments in their hands a couple of weeks ago," she says. "It was an overwhelming experience. I actually took a picture of each class just to commemorate that moment and the excitement that they had coming back into the space as orchestral musicians."

Eighth-graders Kelsey Dobyns, left, and Daniel Famuyide. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Eighth-grader Daniel Famuyide, who's previously taken piano lessons, is trying viola for the first time.

"I want to see what my talents are," Famuyide says. "[I'm excited for] songs I can learn, songs that I can create ... something that can make me feel a whole new experience with music."

Famuyide says he liked virtual learning for its flexibility; plus, he enjoyed not having to wake up early to get to school. Still, he admits, learning string instruments in person is "better."

Another student, Kelsey Dobyns, says she's excited to see "how the class can recover from the COVID experience." She says her classmates were distracted during virtual learning at home.

"Being hands-on is everything," Sharp adds. "There is nothing like standing right next to a student and fixing their cello so that they can sit properly."

Sharp, a cellist herself, coaches student Mariah Baum-El on how to hold the cello. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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As she leads the group in playing quarter notes, things start to fall into place. She hits "play'' on her laptop and the contagious boom-clap-pizzicato combination of pop-rock group Imagine Dragons' "It's Time" blasts from the speakers at the front of the classroom.

So this is what you meant

When you said that you were spent?

And now it's time to build from the bottom of the pit

Right to the top

Don't hold back

The class doesn't hold anything back, slamming buckets with drumsticks and plucking string instruments, surprisingly in sync for having only played a few days together. This pop song isn't what one might expect from an orchestra class. But then again, Sharp doesn't restrict the class when it comes to genres. Along with classical music, she grew up listening to her parents' records — a mix of Bob Marley, Celia Cruz, and Diana Ross.

Keon Jones, left, and Josiah Miller, play percussion on plastic buckets. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

She's just as inclined to have students interpret a hit from modern rappers like Cardi B or Rod Wave as she is to have them learn a Beethoven classic.

"It's just important that their minds are open to everything," Sharp says. "Music is so joyful and puts you through all different types of emotions. And I think that's healthy."

In class, Ms. Sharp guides the budding musicians on how to handle their instruments with care and corrects their posture while they play. But this year, she often has to remind students to pull their masks above their noses.

The only way these in-person experiences can happen is with new precautions — KIPP DC, a public charter system with 7,000 students, has implemented its own weekly pooled COVID testing system. Students get temperature checks when walking through the front doors and are screened for symptoms daily. KIPP DC Northeast Academy has reported fewer than five cases since the beginning of the school year, according to D.C. health department data, but there have been more than 460 positive cases at public charter schools across the District — accounting for more than 55% of the cases at D.C. schools.

Sharp helps a student with their fingering on the keyboard. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Before the pandemic, The String Queens — all of whom are teachers — would even invite students to their performances.

"It's important that they see representation," Sharp says. "It's important that they see us, three Black women, teaching them and pouring love, pouring respect, pouring confidence."

At one point, Sharp tells the percussion section in the back to play louder and tells them she plans to move them to the front of the class the next week. For the string section, she offers a personal story.

"I have a confession," she announces. "When I first started playing the cello, on the third day, I wanted to throw it against the wall. True story. My father would have killed me, so I didn't."

"Oh, wow," a few students say under their breath, mouths open. Others fight back laughter.

"Also on my third day, I broke the A string," Sharp continues. "That's to tell you a couple of things: Hey ya'll, I do what I do now, but it took some time, and it took a lot of effort, practice, and patience. I don't expect you to be perfect."

She tells the class that learning their instruments will take patience for them, too.

Then she tells them to lift their instruments. It's time to play on.

Shannon Ryan holds her violin at rest. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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