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If You Build It

Emily Grossman

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Published: November 7, 2013 at 5:41 AM [UTC]

So many people had no idea what kind of treat they were in for on Saturday when our concert, The Orchestra Moves, unfolded. Heck, I didn't even know how much fun I'd be having, and I participated last year! The viola is feeling much more second nature than just a year ago--and it's a good thing, too, because I'll be playing it next week with the Anchorage Symphony. On viola, I've enjoyed getting my hands on the sophisticated inner parts of orchestral repertoire, and it's such a pleasure to be able to sit next to the cellos for a change.

With the addition of my violin students, the singers, and the recorder players, the stage barely had any room left to breathe, much less move. But move we did! If you had to pick who had the most fun, the teachers and professionals, the amateurs, the parents beating their drums, the kids on the stage, or the audience, I'd have to say it had to have been the conductor: Tammy absolutely beamed. But you'd have a hard time finding someone who needed a collaboration like this more than me. A good moment in music can move me out of the darkest despair like nothing else, and dark days do abound come wintertime in Alaska.

Over a thousand people attended the concert in Soldotna alone, and we met again the next day in Homer for a repeat performance involving the kids of Homer and Ninilchik public schools. After the pre-concert rehearsal, I pulled up a chair and joined a group of colleagues at the back of the stage who were already in the thick of an avid discussion. I always feel a bit honored when I get to hang out with my local music friends. After all, they are some of the brightest and most gifted, caring, and prominent people in the community: they are the public school teachers. Although I have my own degree in elementary education, it takes a very special kind of person to devote his or her life to public education, and I've always seen myself as more geared toward a one-one-one, self-employed type of career; my hat's off to those who have given their lives to music education in the public school.

As I settled in with my knitting, I noticed right away that the group's conversation already included me. Over and over, each of the musicians agreed that our town is long overdue for a public school string program. "How many students do you have in your studio, anyway?" they wanted to know. "Oh, I don't know, with the piano students mixed in, it's tough to say, but I always have a waiting list, and I'm turning down potential string players all the time." Just the previous day, I met new people in the audience who wanted to enroll in lessons. It really is silly that we haven't gotten a string program off the ground yet; it's quite obvious that the demand is already there. I don't exactly have a huge semester turnover, but I can almost guarantee that most of my students who quit playing the violin do so because they have no regular, easily accessible outlet for their pursuit. Just think of what it would be like to be able to play in a string orchestra with classmates during lunch break or recess? Just think of where this could lead? Without a string teacher, we have no string students, and without students, we have no string players to feed our community orchestra, and without string players in the community orchestra, we have our work cut out for us when trying to tackle works like Shostakovich. Who knows what our orchestra could become in ten or fifteen years with a proper string program in place? And who knows whose lives could be made better for it? The first step has already been taken, and that's to get people excited about making music together. The more kids know just how great classical music can be, the more likely they will want to beg their parents to join the orchestra.

Empower. Enlighten. Enrich... Implement a public school string program, and do this and more for your community! I'm already pushing for the next step! Now, to figure out exactly what that next step is...

From Elana Lehrer
Posted on November 7, 2013 at 5:54 AM
A good friend of mine is a band director in a school with a fabulous music department (band, choir etc). They do not, however, have a budget for a separate orchestra program at the moment. So the violin kids sit in on the band rehearsals. The ones who take lessons have no problem playing in flat keys For beginners, they learn Bb as their default key rather than A Major. That's one way to get it done if the school has zero budget for it. Also, maybe you can do studio classes or small ensembles just within your studio. Do they have all county regionals all state or other orchestras in your area? At least it would give them some outlet. Do any of your students attend the same school? If so they should ask the school about an orchestra program…. nothing speaks louder than a long line of parents who all want a program.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 7, 2013 at 5:12 PM
Getting funding is key, as I discovered. One can volunteer for only so long! Also, writing grant applications is a lot of work. My advice: assemble a support team, and try to find other teachers, school administrators or possibly parents of students who could help apply for grants, hold fundraisers, etc. on an ongoing basis. Does the school system have an endowment and anyone who works at it? They can help you find grants, possibly. And then there's the possibility of local donors, or teaming up with a nearby symphony's education program. (I have no idea what, if any, of these are feasible in your area, but I'm just throwing out ideas!) Also, I'd talk to the development director at the Anchorage Symphony -- or at least a person who is familiar with various grants and funding options, as some that aren't directly suitable for the symphony might be suitable for a school education program.

Also, it's important to have a plan for the various levels of players you'll wind up with: beginners, intermediate, etc. A team of teachers who can work together is the ideal!

Just 2 cents from me!

From Rebecca Wishnia
Posted on November 7, 2013 at 5:18 PM
It's such difficult work but it can be done-- I saw a California program get off the ground after it received a large grant from the Yahoo Employee Foundation because a student's parent had a connection. Have you checked out the many programs inspired by El Sistema (
From elizabeth harrington blake
Posted on November 7, 2013 at 8:58 PM
If you want to run a program as part of a school day, or through a school, your most important element is supportive administration. With support, anything can and will happen. Without, or with lukewarm backing, your task will be uphill. I started mine 12 years ago with 17 kids and a totally gung-ho principal- my salary and $150 per year for expenses. It is still growing.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM
Thanks for all the encouragement and ideas everyone! We have a band teacher who learned to play bass and now plays with KPO. He's very fond of stringed instruments and is wanting to teach, so I think that puts us in a good place, if they don't have to hire an extra teacher.
From Karen Rile
Posted on November 7, 2013 at 9:55 PM
Wonderful blog about music in the schools. Also-- I love the photo!
From Mendy Smith
Posted on November 9, 2013 at 1:26 AM
Welcome to the dark side! ;)
Posted on November 9, 2013 at 10:54 PM
I recommend you contact Lorrie Heagy in Juneau, Alaska:
She is an impressive teacher, a fountain of wisdom and founder of the El Sistema inspired program in Juneau's public schools.

Posted on November 10, 2013 at 8:19 AM
Carry On ! The greatest composers wrote their best for strings....the wealth of literature just for string orchestra is incredibly rich...and as by way of advisement, once a foundation is established, pour on the Baroque literature...students enjoy the independence of voices, the good key signatures, and the idiomatic textures. One could make a lifetime of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann with lots of Avison, Corelli,Tartini, Marcello added.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on November 10, 2013 at 8:53 PM
Okay, I got a little confused just now... 99.43, I wish I knew your name so I could thank you for the tip!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on November 11, 2013 at 3:10 AM
Emily, that was Louise Ghandi in LA; she wrote to tell me.

We just made it possible for people who are not members to comment on front-page blogs; I'll be looking at each comment made this way. It will not work for the discussion board; people have to register as a member of to comment more extensively on the site.

From Christina C.
Posted on November 11, 2013 at 9:23 PM
I hope you can soon post a positive follow-up to this great entry. There have been many discussions about the benefits of music education for development regardless of whether people choose to pursue it in adulthood, but for the ones who manage to keep music as part of their lives in some form or another it quite a blessing to have laid the groundwork early on. Aside from the benefits it makes for some very fun times as well.
From Christina C.
Posted on November 11, 2013 at 9:24 PM
ps- beautiful picture.

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