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New orchestra teacher aims to bring students and community together


October 16, 2019 | View PDF

Hannah Stewart

Mr. Chen leading his orchestra class in musical scales.

Keynes Chen stands in his small office in the band and orchestra room practicing his violin. His concentration and dedication to his craft are clear to see by the way he holds his violin gently. His voice is soft as he shares his past: an upbringing shaped by violinist parents, beginning to learn the same instrument himself before the age of five, later studying at the University of Colorado Boulder, and eventually starting his own music school before transitioning to teaching orchestra at Niwot High School.

"I started when I was almost four," Chen says. "I just grew up without knowing anything else besides classical music and traditional folk music." He chuckles as he says that being a violinist was always something he envisioned for himself, even if he took a break from the violin later in life. While part of him wishes he never gave it a break, he acknowledges that the time away from classical music gave him new opportunities and shaped who he is today.

As an orchestra teacher, the violin is central to his life, almost as much as teaching. Chen recalls how he would always see his parents giving lessons, so when his peers and later aspirational musicians asked for his instruction, it came to him comfortably. "Throughout my student years [at CU] I kept teaching privately, but my quartet group broke up and everyone went their own way. I love Boulder and decided to stay. I started freelancing and then did an outreach team with Colorado Symphony."

After working with the Symphony's outreach group, Strings Attached, Chen and his friends, including his wife, decided to start their own school--the Flatirons Strings Academy. "I love working with kids," Chen says, although working with kids in the public school setting is new. He compares the two experiences of teaching--with his academy, many children start young, and so relationships are developed over time.

"You know a student since they're three, four years old and teach them through they graduate," he explains. Moreover, with symphonies and his academy, he is able to essentially pick who he teaches based on predetermined criteria. However, with public school, he says he has to prepare more, especially with the diversity of students. "You have some really excellent students, they go out to all the top youth symphonies...Then you have the kids who are really good, they take lessons...then you have kids where music isn't their main thing, they're just happy where they are: involved."

So, when Niwot Principal Eric Rauschkolb reached out to him about teaching, Chen admits that, while he would be willing to help, he wasn't sure if it was the right fit. "I thought, 'Yeah, I'd like to help...' I gave it a try last semester and I really liked it and now I'm doing it for real." He then explained how the group dynamic is important and how he aims to create a culture of both positivity and hard work. Chen achieves this in part by taking the time to explain technique. For example, instead of simply conducting students in musical scales, he takes the time to discuss fingering patterns, their importance, and emphasizes practice and taking pride in it.

He also creates this culture by talking philosophically with the class. Around the band room, he has inspirational quotes from musicians and other famous thinkers like Einstein and Plato. While the speakers may seem eclectic, their message, the importance of music, is consistent. "All these important people, they value music so much, we shouldn't ignore it...I ask them to think bigger than just their instrument: what can you do with your music education?"

The distinction between "music" and "music education" is important to Chen. For him, music should not simply be a passive activity of listening, instead, it is a process of development. With music education, there's a level of humanity, "You see beauty differently, you become more sophisticated in how you view the world... Music has everything in it." So while music is a necessity for him, he believes teaching music should be just as required as any other subject.

"It's a must, people just haven't realized it yet," he says. Chen believes that we as a society need to support the arts more and much of that starts by supporting each other. That's just one reason why Niwot High School's Fall Extravaganza is so important. By collaborating within the department, the program is more inclusive and brings attention to itself. "We deserve more recognition, for how hard the band works, the orchestra, how good the choirs are. We have teachers who are passionate about what they do. Our groups are so good here, it's so well done, and the kids are really enjoying it." For Chen, his students' excitement and passion only lend to the department's success, reinforces his belief that music shapes and connects the world, and encourages him to help students achieve their goals.


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