The kindergartners laughed when Brian Thacker mentioned the word “pizzicato.”

“Is that a type of cheese?” he asked. “A fancy pizza?”

“NO!” the class bellowed as one, knowing better than to fall for Thacker’s trickery.

The students in Beverly Lawrence’s kindergarten class at Longfellow Elementary School in Portland knew that “pizzicato” is an Italian word that describes plucking the strings of an instrument – in this case, Thacker’s big, brown acoustic bass. And in this lesson, the pizzicato plucks that emanated from Thacker’s big brown bass described the action of a principal character in the children’s book “The Little Red Hen.”

Thacker, who plays bass in the Portland Symphony Orchestra, brings his instrument to school a lot these days, as part of the PSO Explorers program. His primary goal is not to help students understand musical terms and techniques but to help them become better readers and all-around learners by using music to sharpen their focus and concentration. Musicians partner with kindergarten and first-grade teachers at two Portland elementary schools to develop curriculum to help students with literacy, social and emotional skills.

After Thacker demonstrates the plucking sound of the goose in the children’s book, he introduces another Italian word, “arco,” which describes bowing an instrument’s strings. Lawrence reads the story to the children, who are seated on the floor in two arcing rows in a sun-filled gym, and Thacker bows the bass strings in a low rumble, imagining the sleeping dog in the story.

The orchestra began PSO Explorers three years ago and recently received a $600,000 grant to expand and continue it through 2020.

The program is unusual because it’s not attempting to teach kids about music. It uses music to enhance existing reading lessons, said Lynn Hannings, who plays bass in the orchestra and coordinates the program’s curriculum. It’s premised on the notion that music helps students relax and learn by using different parts of the brain.

“Listening to music gets you moving and gets you thinking,” she said. “When using music to teach literacy, we have found that music helps increase the energy level, which helps get the brain going.”

Music has proved particularly helpful to students for whom English is not their primary language, Hannings said. For those students, music provides a different way to engage their interest and narrate a story.

The program began three years ago for kindergartners at Reiche Elementary School and has since expanded to first-graders at Reiche and kindergartners at Longfellow. It grew out of the symphony’s internal strategic planning process, said Executive Director Carolyn Nishon. The planning process identified community outreach opportunities for the symphony and existing educational needs.

The PSO Explorers program complements other symphony efforts to reach young people and families, including KinderKonzerts, youth concerts and the orchestra’s popular Discovery Concerts family series.

The orchestra’s former assistant conductor and community liaison, Norman Huynh, helped launch the program, working with teachers at Reiche. They found early success, and in spring 2015 were invited to a national symposium on music education at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to talk about the program.

The grant from the Bingham Trust was unexpected. It’s the largest outright gift the orchestra has received, Nishon said.

The trust, which is based in Connecticut and focuses its philanthropy on music and education, invited the orchestra to apply for a grant.

The grant, announced in September, will provide $50,000 in operating funds for three years to support the program, as well as $150,000 to invest in the PSO endowment, with the yield supporting the musicians who teach in the Explorers program. Nishon said the grant affirms the program’s success and ensures its future, and it helps recommit the orchestra to effective community service.

“It’s obviously very nice to be recognized, and especially for this kind of music education, which is all about responding to the needs of our community and finding ways we can be most helpful,” she said.

John Elliott, the PSO’s director of education, said the program works because the musicians and teachers are equal collaborators in establishing the curriculum. They both bring unique skills and find common ground in the lesson plans. The teachers suggest a specific goal they’d like to achieve – to instill sharper listening skills in their students, or to help them identify characters in a story or comprehend a moral – and the musicians suggest a musical path to achieve it.

“It works because the PSO is involved in finding out exactly what the classroom teachers need,” said Amy Wu, a Reiche kindergarten teacher. “And those needs might change along the way, and they work directly with us to figure that out.”

It begins with summer lesson plans. After school starts in the fall, the musicians show up one day every other week with a lesson plan – and instrument – in hand. On those days, they work side by side with the classroom teacher, for a total of 24 classroom visits throughout the year.

Violinist Amy Sims has been involved with the program since its early days at Reiche. Early on, the musicians “used a whole panorama of sounds” to connect music with math, reading, writing and other core subject areas. With time, they’ve focused on literacy and comprehension, Sims said.

By creating a sound motif to accompany the story in a book, Sims is able to help students follow and comprehend. “They are very curious, and they have an immediate response to creating sounds that are maybe outside of their usual soundscape at home,” Sims said. “They are listening very differently.”

Wu has observed that students are more apt to participate in the story and are more active in their retelling of the story. They also remember more details, Wu said. “They may not understand the language, but they understand the music,” she said. “We all know how catchy a tune is. When we make stories come alive through music or a musical experience, the children are more engaged.”

The program also benefits students’ musical education by introducing instruments and musical terms – like pizzicato and arco – as well as professional musicians, who are with the students throughout the year and become role models. The program culminates in the spring with a performance among students and musicians.

A side benefit is morale building. Early on, inspired by the opportunity to make music together, the teachers at Reiche formed their own ukulele orchestra, a loosely organized group of a dozen or so teachers who learned to make music together. They practice weekly at 7:45 a.m. Tuesdays.

“It a great stress reliever,” said Wu, who had never played an instrument until she learned to play the ukulele. Some teachers have used the instrument as a way to bring music in their classroom apart from the PSO Explorers program.

Andrea Martelle, who also teaches kindergarten at Reiche, described the program as a gift.

“I took some piano growing up, and I happened to marry into a musical family,” she said. “I see how music is such a lifelong gift. To be able to give these kids that gift is pretty huge.”