Dee Spencer helps bring music to city's children

When Dee Spencer isn't busy leading SF State's School of Music and Dance, she's bringing music into the lives of public elementary school students throughout San Francisco.

Spencer, professor and chair of music and dance, has for the past two decades participated in Adventures in Music (AIM), a program put on by the San Francisco Symphony in conjunction with the San Francisco Unified School District. The program's goal is to instill in the city's children a lifelong appreciation for music, whether or not they someday become performers themselves.

A photo of Professor and Chair of Music and Dance Dee Spencer.

Professor and Chair of Music and Dance Dee Spencer

"These are first and second graders," Spencer said. "We're teaching them how to snap their fingers for the very first time. That's a very significant thing for them. We're trying to shape their listening skills and their experience with music for the rest of their lives."

AIM, which started in 1988 and reaches every public school student in first through fifth grades in San Francisco, includes, among other components, specialized teacher curricula, a private concert by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall and in-school performances. The program reaches about 24,000 students annually, said Sammi Madison, director of education programs for the symphony.

This school year, Spencer leads one of the eight AIM ensembles that provide in-classroom performances. Her four-person jazz group performs three to four times a week, amounting to 142 total performances between January and May of this year. At each performance, the group introduces the jazz form by playing the "Happy Birthday" song in a traditional manner, and then with a jazz interpretation. Each member of the ensemble then takes a turn introducing him or herself and their instrument and conducting a song. In addition to playing keyboards, Spencer is in charge of supervising the performance and making sure everything runs smoothly.

Throughout the performance, the group explains the roles of the composer, conductor, musician and audience. The lessons are part of this year's theme, "Elements of Music," which explores these four components and how they mix together. Each year's theme is designed to fit into a part of the district's core curriculum, Madison said. This year's theme of "mixing" integrates music with language arts and visual arts, including concepts about shapes and colors for students in first and second grades and basic concepts in architecture for students in third through fifth grades. 

"Dee completely understands the power of a musician to touch the imaginations of children," Madison said. "Through great music, a child can take flight around the world. As a music educator, Dee also embraces the truth that you must never give anything less than your very best to children."

Spencer said her work with the AIM program, which reaches every part of the city from Bay View to Pacific Heights, fits well with the mission of SF State to engage its community. In addition, she said, music has a multitude of cognitive benefits for children that AIM helps to instill early in their lives.

"They get to see the cooperation between individuals working for a common purpose," she said. "They get to interact. They learn how to respond appropriately by applauding. There are all kinds of intrinsic values that are being taught during that 30-minute performance."

-- Jonathan Morales