Let There Be Music

School arts programs are always the first to get cut. It's a bit tragic the arts can be so dishonored that when a small battle is won to bring back what should already exist, the key players are nothing less than saints.

Anaheim City School District (ACSD) is the sixth-largest elementary-school district in California. Its 24 schools accommodate more than 19,300 students, 85 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-rate lunches. According to Dorothy Rose, the executive director of Orange County Symphony (OCS), there had not been an instrumental-music program in the district for around 30 years. Evidently, this was not to her satisfaction.

Rose became the executive director of OCS in 2004. “From day one, my vision was to bring music back to the elementary students of the city of Anaheim,” she says. Unfortunately, she found no support. “I took the idea to many different people, and nobody was interested.” Nine years later, the perseverant Rose and OCS president Michael Anderson paid ACSD's new superintendent, Dr. Linda Wagner, a visit.

Though the position of district superintendent can sometimes be a political one—classroom experience on the résumé of any Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent of the 21st century is rare—Wagner's 27 years of educational experience give her a more involved administrative style. Rose recounts that during their initial meeting, Wagner said she'd “always felt that music was a huge part of what is important to elementary-school education.”

Upon hearing this, Rose pitched her idea. “We have a roster of 250 professional, talented, willing musicians . . . [and] nearly every one of them teaches their own private students. . . . A major number of these musicians would be willing to come and teach after-school instruction in instruments because I [believe they agree that] kids . . . participating in teamwork in an orchestral setting is tremendously valuable.”

According to Rose, Wagner's response was, “Yeah, let's do it!” That initial meeting took place in April 2013. By September, 14 of the 24 ACSD schools had pilot programs, and 56 classes per week were being taught in the four orchestral sections (strings, brass, percussion and woodwinds) to 1,264 students.

Wagner says each school spread the word through parent newsletters, calling systems, fliers and word of mouth. “At the district level, we filmed a video and sent it out via email to all teachers to be shown at [the initial] schools participating in the program,” she says. The video showed various instruments and encouraged students to participate. Finally, Wagner, along with her colleagues at OCS, held informational nights during which they spoke to parents about the program and demonstrated instruments.

Naturally, creating an orchestral program costs money.”We started out without a single, solitary instrument,” Rose says. But this didn't deter her vision. She speaks at city council meetings twice a month about music and what the OCS is doing. At one point, she decided to publicly bring up the plan she was working on. “The next thing I knew, the newspapers ran a story here and there, I was featured on NPR, and then Dr. Wagner spent a little bit of money [with the district's] PR firm, which gave her advice and made possible some press conferences.”

Wagner says she and Rose started to work together to get support for the proposed program. They spoke at the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) education-division conference about the schools' need for instruments. “We visited local service clubs such as Rotary and Kiwanis to solicit donations, [and] Mayor [Tom] Tait and the city of Anaheim are helping to spread the word,” Wagner says.

The results were slow but effective enough to get things started. Instruments trickled in one by one; money has also gradually been contributed—principally through private citizens. According to Wagner, the funds for the modest teacher stipends of $25 per class are primarily raised through PTA and other donations. Recently, NAMM presented the school board with a $10,000 check, which has been earmarked for the orchestra program. Including the NAMM donation, the program has so far received $85,000 in donations and 50 instruments (in varying conditions), and it is on track to expand to all 24 schools in the district by the fall. There's still a need for cash donations and instruments.

On May 17, the Anaheim Children's Art Festival will feature a performance by the students who are ready to play their first big concert. Beyond that, each of the 14 schools that currently participate in the program will feature a recital so the parents, as well as the community, can see the product of this well-played endeavor.


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