UT’s White Avenue Early Learning Center Helps ‘Homegrown’ Take Root

Luka Hyde stands mesmerized, listening to the guitar music and trying to sing along.

“He loves it,” said his father, Greg Hyde. “The do-re-mi stuff, he had it in two minutes.”

Luka, who has Down syndrome, is one of about 30 children who have been part of eXceptional Orchestra, a six-week after-school enrichment program being hosted this winter at the White Avenue Early Learning Center for Research and Practice on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus.

The Early Learning Center, affiliated with the Department of Child and Family Studies, is an educational program for children 6 weeks to 5 years old. It also provides a hands-on learning experience for more than 100 enrolled annually in Child and Family Studies’ coursework, as well as students and faculty from additional disciplines, including audiology and speech pathology, nursing, psychology and special education.

This winter’s eXceptional Orchestra is sponsored by the East Tennessee Technology Access Center (ETTAC), a nonprofit agency that has provided assistive technology services to children and adults. The program has involved children who regularly attend kindergarten and the after-school program at Early Learning Center, as well as children from other nearby schools who were invited just for the six-week program. About 35 percent of the eXceptional Orchestra participants have disabilities.

Born of Necessity

eXceptional Orchestra is the brainchild of Kim Kredich, wife of UT Lady Vols swim coach Matthew Kredich.

Kim Kredich studied choral and orchestral conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music and started working on the eXceptional Orchestra curriculum when she and her family lived in Richmond, Va. The motto of eXceptional Orchestra is “Everyone has a part to play,” and its mission is to bring children with and without disabilities together to enjoy visual arts, drama, dance, movement, music and accessible musical instruments.

For Kredich, developing the program has been a personal journey. She is mother to three boys — 9-year-old twins and a 7-year-old. One of the twins, Ben, was diagnosed with autisum at age 2.

When he was very young, Kredich said, Ben loved to hear the song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” — as long as it was played in C-major. Performed in any other key, the song would cause him to become quite upset.

Intrigued by this, Kredich continued observing her son and soon discovered that he — like a disproportionate number of people with autism — has perfect pitch.

She began to look for ways to interest all of her children in music — and nurture Ben’s special abilities. (Today, all of her sons play three musical instruments. Ben plays cello, piano and string bass, and composes his own songs.)

Through Kredich’s inclusive work with her own children, the concept for eXceptional Orchestra was born.

Soon after moving to Knoxville, Kredich attended a music camp sponsored by ETTAC. She told ETTAC staff about eXceptional Orchestra and a partnership developed. The 2009 eXceptional Orchestra has received funding from the Tennessee Arts Commission, the East Tennessee Foundation and Variety — the Children’s Charity of Eastern Tennessee.

This is the second time eXceptional Orchestra has been offered in Knoxville; the first program was offered last winter at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

Sean Durham, the director of the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice, became acquainted with Kredich because both families have children at Sequoyah Elementary School in Knoxville. Durham attended last winter’s eXceptional Orchestra with his family.

“I appreciate the philosophy of this program,” Durham said. “That good teaching and a developmentally appropriate learning environment are needed to help learners of all abilities succeed.”

When she was ready to create another eXceptional Orchestra project, Kredich asked Durham if the White Avenue Early Learning Center would like to host it.

“I agreed that this outreach would give us an opportunity to learn more about providing enriching experiences to a wide variety of children,” he said.

Homegrown Learning

The theme of this winter’s eXceptional Orchestra is “Homegrown.” It focuses on homegrown forms of music and expression like Appalachian dance, bluegrass music, and “the blues,” and it integrates a science curriculum by including topics like plant and animal growth and the water cycle.

The culmination of the program is a 30-minute performance that will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at McClung Museum, 1327 Circle Park Drive, on the UT Knoxville campus. The performance is free and open to the public; a reception will follow.

During the show, the children will sing, dance and play musical instruments. And they will join Webb School ninth-grader Justin Plummer, who composed the project’s theme song, “Homegrown,” as he plays guitar and sings.

At a recent rehearsal, students moved from station to station. Outside, they painted white wooden lattices with green music staff lines.

Inside, they made self-portrait “face flowers” out of small paper plates and brightly colored construction paper. These will be the basis of musical notes that the children will attach randomly to the lattices to create their own musical composition. They will perform their “face flower song” at Saturday’s show.

Two UT students in Child and Family Studies — freshman Kelly Corum and graduate student Sara Scott — have joined the White Avenue Early Learning Center teachers to help the children with the activities.

Also there to watch and help were several parents, including Greg Hyde, who just stood to the side, smiling, as he watched Luka take in the guitar music and sing along.

“The interaction with the kids is great for him,” he said. “And it lets more people get to know kids with disabilities, like Down syndrome, and see that they’re just as normal as everybody else.”

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