by David SiegelSpecial to the Times
“Music is so very fundamental; it is a central part of all of us, a part of who we are,” said Elizabeth Pulju-Owen, of the trio Dynamic Duo & Presto! The group was formed to bring “education through entertainment” to school-age children by several members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
“The children were simply spellbound; they recognized true artistry,” said Camille Haberland, music teacher at Mosby Woods Elementary School, about a recent performance of the Dynamic Duo.
And how do they entertain young children without amplifiers, 3D animation and a computer screen? Dynamic Duo & Presto! combines music, theater and magic into short 30 to 45 minute plays with costumes and simple age-appropriate props to engage curiosity. The props can be as straightforward as a cowboy hat or a beret and sunglasses, along with lively dancing
The trio, composed of Karen Lowry-Tucker, Elizabeth Pulju-Owen, a Fairfax County native, and Drew Owen try to engage children’s imagination, stimulating their interests and enjoyment through a wide range of music, much of it choreographed.
Classically trained, the group often plays their stringed instruments — violin, viola and cello — with unexpected twists. After all, how many expect to hear up-tempo music styles such as jazz or blues by way of Muddy Waters or Scott Joplin, or listen to old standards like “Don't Get Around Much Anymore,” played only with stringed instruments and a bow.
With story names such as “Karen Builds a Violin” and “The Case of the Vanishing Viola,” the children can learn life lessons that emphasize the importance of friendship and cooperation, that reinforce the value of hard work and practice to achieve one’s goals, and how music can express human emotions.
The group was formed because they always wanted to “give back” to the community. Lowry-Tucker said, “I realize I can’t teach every one of them but I can demonstrate the joy, discipline and reward of studying music.” She mentioned being inspired to become a professional musician after a visit from a cellist when she was growing up in Louisville, Ky.
For Pulju-Owen, “I’ve always loved working with children. ... It’s so important to bring music directly to children. When we perform in schools, we’re usually only a few feet away from the audience. The children love being so close to the music and we love being able to interact with them in a way which is just not possible in a concert hall.
“One thing we want children to learn is that classical music doesn’t have to be formal and stuffy; that it can be fun. We also want to give children the opportunity to see and hear our instruments up close,” Pulju-Owen said.
Don’t the children fidget and get bored?
In response, the trio spoke of presenting their educational points in a story context, combining music, theater and magic. They aim to engage children’s attention and enthusiasm and fuel their curiosity about string instruments and classical music.
In developing a presentation aimed at elementary school students, “We think first about what we want students to learn from our shows and how we want to frame our shows. Then we choose music that best illustrates our teaching points,” Pulju-Owen said.
Drew Owen is the magician in Dynamic Duo & Presto! He said he chose “magic to help reflect the mood and the rhythm of the music. The magic adds an element of visual fun, but also helps the audience feel what the composer was trying to express. Magic and music both take us out of the ordinary world by stimulating the imagination.”
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School Assistant Principal Mary Kay Howard spoke of the recent visit of the trio this way: “The students loved it. It was a big hit with an engaging narrative. The children learned the consequences of actions and learned lots about music.”
When asked what she would like parents to know about what her group does in bringing entertainment and education to their children, Pulju-Owen said, “Teaching children about music gives them an important tool for self-expression.”
The Dynamic Duo & Presto! looks for new ideas. Currently they are experimenting with ways of making their instruments imitate an electric guitar, bass, harmonica and percussion. For example, “by hitting the low strings of the cello with the wood of the bow the right way, I can get a pretty good drum beat and bass line at the same time,” Owen said.
Dynamic Duo & Presto are a member of the Creative Arts Program of the Arts Council of Fairfax County and the Humanities Project of Arlington County Public Schools. The group generally works with local PTA organizations to bring performances to a school. As a group, they all agreed with Lowry-Tucker that “we love what we do” fueling the curiosity of children through music.