Eliza Cho, 31, a second-year teacher at the Waldorf School who performs with the Pennsylvania Ballet and Sarasota Opera in Florida, teaches a lot more to her students than just music.

by Lou Mancinelli

As the tradition goes in America, and for a lot of local residents the holidays are a chance to spend time with friends and relatives. Religious and seasonal rituals and celebrations serve as moments of light during the winter, when the sun sets early and the nights are dark and long.
But a group of middle school students from Mt. Airy’s Waldorf School of Philadelphia’s after-school chamber music program experienced a different kind of holiday one evening in December at Shriners Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia.

Seven students and one helper, along with their orchestra teacher, Eliza Cho, walked through Shriners’ halls and performed holiday music — five violins, one cello and one viola — for bedridden children and their families on Sunday night, Dec. 19, to spread holiday joy through stringed harmonies. And with some cakes and refreshments.

“There was definitely something challenging in it,” said sixth-grader Bruno Schiffman, 12, during a conversation the Local had with a few students and Miss Cho at the school this month. “At first the young patients were pretty quiet … It seemed like they did appreciate the music.”

The young musicians played songs requested by the patients and their families like Harry Connick Jr.’s “When My Heart Finds Christmas” and the song “Believe” from “The Polar Express.” And the traditional “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”

“It was good especially because it was around the holidays,” said Mariah Lehmkuhl, 13, an eighth-grader. “They aren’t as fortunate as us, and some of them could not go home for Christmas. It was good to let them know someone cares.”

“At first, we were saying, ‘How are we going to present this?’” said seventh-grader Chloe Hannah-Drullard, also 13. “It felt kind of guilty.’”
“I think sometimes it’s hard because you don’t want to seem like you’re saying, ‘Hey, I’m a kid like you, and look what I can do,’” said Cho, 31, a second-year teacher at Waldorf who performs with the Pennsylvania Ballet and Sarasota Opera in Florida.

“Essentially, what we were trying to say, without saying it in words, is that even though there are all these festivities going on outside, you are not forgotten,” said Cho, who organized the night through a number of emails with hospital staff.

“It was nice to be able to play music for them and make them happy,” said Sam Rogers-Petro, 14, an eighth-grader.

One of the patients, who used to play the violin himself, was in isolation and no one could enter his room. Instead, the students played for him from the hallway. “It was kind of tear-jerking,” said Hannah-Drullard.

MUSICAL GOODWILL AMBASSADORS: On Sunday, Dec. 19, 6:30 PM, a few of the Waldorf School (in Mt. Airy) middle school students and their orchestra teacher, Eliza Cho, were on a mission to spread holiday cheer to the inpatients at Shriners Hospital for Children. Dressed festively, they carted around their instruments music stands, holiday sheet music and treats for the patients, going to 30 rooms, performing requested holiday music for the patients, especially those who were bed-ridden. Seen here are, from left, Oliver Mitchell-Boyask of Mt. Airy, Samuel Rogers-Petro of Roslyn, Mariah Lehmkuhl of Manayunk and Eliza Cho.

“I could really the feel the level of gratitude and appreciation from the patients’ parents, the staff members and the patients themselves,” said eighth-grader Oliver Mitchell-Boyask.

“I have a really great canvas of students to work with here,” said Cho, who was raised in Chicago and attended the DePaul University School of Music. “They are really musical and easy to work with. I could never get kids I worked with in other schools [in New York City] to volunteer just to do it.”

The Waldorf School of Philadelphia, located at 7500 Germantown Ave., was founded in 1996. According to its Web site, its students experience education through a curriculum that provides the complete range of subjects taught in most American schools but with the inclusion of foreign language, music, orchestra, movement, handwork, woodwork and performing arts. It is one of 900 Waldorf schools around the world, founded more than 100 years ago in Europe. Faculty members seek to educate their students using the educational philosophy and curriculum of Rudolf Steiner in a contemporary context.

According to Wikipedia, Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and the founder of anthroposophy, a discipline that attempts to clarify spiritual experiences using the scientific method. His educational principles emphasize the role of imagination in intellectual development in both the creative and analytical elements.

Other participating students not already mentioned included Ben Rogers-Petro, Alex Rittler and Roman Fiorella, who helped the musicians carry their equipment. “I had never really been to  a hospital before,” said Lehmkuhl. “But to see kids there my age, I realize I am really lucky.”

For more information, visit www.phillywaldorf.com.