Anxious parents waited outside Fernando Carrillo’s classroom after one recent school day — the sound of harp strings being plucked filling the hall.
The Brooks Middle School students inside were getting some last minute instruction from Marguerite Lynn Williams, a professional harpist who’s been working with the kids this month. Last Tuesday was the final session of an after-school program teaching students how to play the harp.
“Big Church Bell” and “Hot Cross Buns” were a few of the songs students performed for a small group of parents. This was the first time some had heard their kids play since the four-week program started Jan. 4. Last week’s session included a performance for parents and Brooks staff, who sandwiched into a corner near the classroom door just to listen.
Carrillo, who has taught at Brooks for seven years, has always wanted to bring harp playing to students in Oak Park.
“I felt that as a school and music department, we offer almost everything else. It seemed like this was missing,” he said.
Carrillo doesn’t play the string-family instrument himself, so he approached Williams about his idea. She previously sat in as a harpist with the Brooks orchestra, of which Carrillo is the director. Williams, who has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, among other notable ensembles, also gives private lessons. She said there is no other school in the Chicago area offering this kind of harp program.
Participants signed up for the class. Most of the harps were rented from Lyon and Healy Harps of Chicago, a longtime manufacturer of the instruments. One harp was donated to the class by one of Carrillo’s former student. The students had the option of taking the harps home to practice.
That’s what Tina Norton’s son, Michael, did. The harps are almost as tall as some of the sixth-graders, and getting the thing in the backseat of a car is a bit of a hassle, Norton said.
But she didn’t mind at all his playing in the house. She likes the sound, in fact, and her son quickly learned how to play.
“It’s a pleasant sound,” she said. “He enjoyed it, but he’s not sure if he wants to make it his life’s work.”
At their performance last week, Williams had the students play different parts in a couple of songs, like having two sections of a choir. Williams then had them switch to play the other kids’ parts.
Alex Frendt picked it up pretty quickly during the workshop. Then again, he also plays the trumpet, drums, piano and xylophone.
“I like harps. I heard they were like an everything instrument, and I like the way they sound. It sounds like a guitar, kind of majestic. I like playing on kind of different instruments,” said the 12-year-old, whose birthday was the day before the performance.
His mom, Marian, opted not to take the instrument home. Alex instead practiced at school during lunch time. He said he wants to play it again in the future. Mom recalled being surprised of his wanting to play the harp.
“At the time, he was in a group playing the xylophone, and I had never expected him to show an interest in that kind of instrument,” she said.
Workshops, which took place each Tuesday, were scheduled to end last week, but they will continue for another month, with new and current students signing up. It’s Carrillo’s wish to offer the program at Julian Middle School and the other elementary schools later this spring, eventually making it part of the music curriculum.
Families do pay a fee for the program and can opt on their own to pursue private lessons after concluding the workshops.
Williams will also be teaching the next group of kids.
“We’re seeing how far we can take it,” she said. “It’s just unheard of to get that many students together to start from scratch. If we can make it open to other people and keep it going, who knows what it can turn into.”