“Welcome to the club.”
With these words last night, one of the world’s great violinists, Vadim Gluzman, (near right with microphone, above) handed out instruments to children from four Columbus, Ohio charter schools, to launch a program called Play Us Forward, an initiative of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra to bring music education to these schools for the first time. The program will provide violins and instruction to students at these schools free of charge, thanks to the generosity of donors like The Hattie and Robert Lazarus Fund, Key Bank and the Loft Violin Shop.
Vadim had just given a magnificent performance of the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto with us in his role as Creative Partner. ProMusica is lucky to have him, once or twice a year, as our own “in-house” soloist and/or leader, conducting from the concertmaster’s chair. But last night, he played an even more important role, making the kids (and everyone else, myself included) feel both welcome and included in something special.
Before giving out the violins, Vadim spoke of his own childhood in the Soviet Union, and his own first instrument, (a 1/8th size, I believe) which took some doing to acquire in a country where, as he reminded us with a wry smile, even basics like toilet paper were often hard to come by. He also spoke of the doors that have opened for him and the wonderful people he has met playing the violin, and radiated gratitude for the life music has given him.
Our wonderful music director, David Danzmayr (far left, above) spoke of his own good fortune as a young musician – he was born into a musical family (in Mozart’s hometown, no less!) and had a piano waiting for him in his living room. As David pointed out, not everyone has that kind of luck, and that programs like Play Us Forward bring these opportunities to kids who would likely never have them otherwise.
To help launch Play Us Forward, I gave presentations of Bach and Boombox at the four schools (including the KIPP Academy, pictured above). I was really struck by the level of sound in the hallways and classrooms – it was very quiet. At each school, there was great emphasis on self-control and respect for others, and that even extended to how the kids expressed themselves.
When I mentioned that I had worked at the White House, the KIPP kids all began snapping their fingers – I thought I had wandered into a production of “West Side Story” for a second, but their teacher explained that this meant they liked what they were hearing, and would do this in the classroom when someone gave an insightful answer, too.
All this tells me that these kids will make excellent music students (not to mention audience members!) – more on that in a minute.
The kids I met were invited to our concerts this past weekend free of charge, and I bet that for many, the performance was the first orchestra concert they’d been to. They got to see what’s possible on a violin (quite a bit, if you’re Vadim!) and now they will get violin lessons themselves.
With this program, ProMusica is saying, “Here’s what we do, and now you can do it too.” There are so many reasons why this is a great idea, I don’t know where to start, but here goes.
These charter schools tend to serve children with numerous challenges, academic and otherwise – this program will help equip the children with tools to meet these challenges in ways that only the arts can.
There is no shortage of data showing that studying music helps kids in reading and math, and I am sure we’ll see that with these students. Charter schools tend to place great emphasis on academic performance and metrics, and I guarantee that the kids taking violin lessons will exceed their peers in these areas.
So many schools cut their arts programs when they face budget cuts or focus on raising test scores – this will be a strong reminder that they are working against themselves when they do.
We’re also giving the kids a chance to learn something deeply satisfying, but very demanding, too. Anyone who’s studied an instrument knows that instant gratification is NOT what you get.
The experience of doing persistent, sometimes frustrating work in pursuit of incremental but meaningful improvement is a very powerful one, and with the schools’ emphasis on self-discipline and positive, respectful self-expression, these kids will be exceptionally well-prepared to reap the benefits.
Lastly, there’s a benefit (and a lesson) for professional ensembles here. There’s much talk these days about how orchestras need to rethink their place in society – often viewed as elitist and walled off from society as a whole, many performing groups are finding new ways to impact the communities they serve. More on that in my next post.
The Play Us Forward program is a great model for orchestras to follow, and by offering the gift of music to children who otherwise would not have it, it makes a more powerful and longer lasting impact than any concert ever could. It also reminds all of us, both inside the music world and out, that the doors of “the club” can and should be open to everyone.
Till next time,