Back in 1987, when a Denver Symphony (now defunct) staff member rudely informed a school principal whose students had raised money for the orchestra that the kids couldn’t attend a rehearsal, Eric Bertoluzzi, cellist with the then Denver/now Colorado Symphony, saw an opportunity. He established Up Front and Musical, an organization that enables Colorado Symphony musicians to present in-school performances to Denver-area students.
Yvonne Caruthers, NSO cellist, interviewed Eric to find out all the details of his remarkably successful program, which presents more than 120 concerts a year to over 20,000 students. UCAM rotates 40-50 members of the Colorado Symphony through their programs, and Eric describes how his colleagues “blossom” as they learn to speak to the kids. They even made a CD in 1997, which they use to promote the groups. Eric discusses the funding he’s found for the group, the type of music they play, and offers his advice to other symphony musicians eager to put together first-class concerts for school children.
Interviewed by Yvonne Caruthers
Q. When did you first get the idea for UCAM?
It was the result of a bad experience at a local elementary school I had with the (former) Denver Symphony Orchestra back in the late 1980s. The school had participated in a fundraiser for the orchestra and they raised more money for the DSO than anyone else. They asked if they could bring their kids to a rehearsal. Someone penciled on the letter, “We don’t let even HS kids come to a rehearsal” and sent the original letter back to the principal. Understandably, the principal was horrified. I heard about it from one of my adult students. I set up a meeting with the principal. When she came into the office, she put the letter on the table and said, “I guess you’re here about this.” I offered to bring a group to the school and try to make it all better.
I realized I had an opportunity to do something special, the way I thought it should be done. I formed an ensemble of 14 Denver Symphony musicians, with a young soloist, and selected music that would feature a different instrument for each piece. I had about two months to plan it. I remember the date we played: Dec 18, 2019. The musicians were so jazzed about it, we went to someone’s house to celebrate after the concert. One of them said, “We should do more of these.”
I was so inspired that I got the help of a music education advocate. I knew if we were to do this a lot, I’d have to get money. I found a donor who gave $5000 to get us started, and we incorporated as a non-profit. [Coincidentally,] the DSO went bankrupt around the same time.
Q. How many schools did you play for at first?
We did 26 schools the first year, which was the 1988-89 season. We incorporated in ‘90, about the same year that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra was reorganized, led by the musicians.
UCAM is separate from the symphony. There were a number of efforts (from CSO) to take control of our program, but the musicians in UCAM never allowed it to happen. We wanted artistic control of the program.
Q. How big was your first group?
It’s always been 12 strings, 4-3-2-2-1, and for every concert we feature a wind and a brass instrument. That makes a total of 14 players.
Q. How many schools will you reach this year?
With our “standard program” of 14 musicians, we will visit 25-30 schools. However, our other programs – “More Than Just Notes” (pre and post-concert visits by a musician), “Inside the Music Business” (small ensembles of musicians visiting middle and high school music classes), “Fun Playing Music” (beginning violin instruction at one Denver school), “Curriculum Infusion Events” (the standard ensemble of 14 musicians participating in arts integration programs in elementary schools), and “Art Reaching Kids” (day-long events done in collaboration with a local dance company and a local art museum) – bring the total number of schools to more than 50. During 2005-06, UCAM activities exceeded 120 and reached more than 20,000 young people and adults.
Q. Do you ask for feedback after your performances?
We have an evaluation form – we get responses from teachers, not from the students. We use those responses to strengthen the program. When schools don’t have a music teacher, it’s important for us to be in the classroom, to be there on as many levels as possible. There’s so much emphasis on academics in today’s schools that it’s a challenge to get into the schools. They are afraid to devote time to assembly programs or outside programs. But we’re still pretty successful.
One of the most important elements of UCAM concerts in schools has been the Q & A prior to the last musical selection. It is an opportunity for the musicians to share a bit more information with the students, and it helps us to learn more about the kids. Their immediate feedback provides us with great inspiration and with suggestions of how to make the program more relevant to them.
Q. What’s your role in UCAM?
I serve as the organization’s Chief Operating Officer. There is no full-time staff. Other than a personnel manager who does a great job of hiring the most appropriate musicians, and an assistant who helps schedule the schools, our administrative expenses are kept to a minimum. We know, as do all symphony musicians, that financial paradise will not be the result of our efforts. The payment we receive amounts to little more than an honorarium.
Q. Do you have any of the original players still in the group?
Only two: one of the bass players and, from time to time, the Colorado Symphony’s principal cellist.
Q. Do the players change from performance to performance, or is it pretty much the same group of players all year?
We rotate 40-50 players from the Symphony through the program throughout the year. Not everyone wants to play, but if someone wants to play with us, we don’t reject them. We always invite new members of the orchestra to join us, and they can accept or not. Those who participate are happy to do this – if they aren’t happy they get weeded out. I don’t want them here if they are just doing it for the money. The kids can tell. You can’t run the risk of blowing that opportunity (playing in the school only once every three years). I think there’s a tacit sense of ownership from the musicians.
Many say, “This is the most fun thing I get to do.” They learn to speak informally, to be at ease with the kids.
I’ve enjoyed seeing my colleagues blossom in that role. Of course some are more predisposed to it than others, but most players have something to say. I encourage them to talk personally about their relationship to their instrument or the music; what it’s like to be a musician; what it’s like to perform for kids; how they got started; where they bought their instruments, etc.
We attempt to minimize the amount of talk that can more easily be shared by the music teacher in a classroom. With a few exceptions, we rarely visit the same schools year after year. Therefore, the best experience we can provide in the small amount of time we are at a school is not based, in my opinion, on how much information we can cram into the kids.
Rather, we view our role as enhancing and enriching the musical learning experience by giving the kids a high quality live performance of the best music we can find for them. I’ve always been guided by the wisdom of my good friend Jon Deak, who once said, “There is always this argument over how much music should be played for kids compared to the amount of talking. For me, it is more important to make sure we are giving the kids an artistic experience.” This is our greatest gift to the kids.
Q. How big is your budget? Where do you get your funding?
This year it’s $130,000. Our expenses are less than that, so we put leftovers in a reserve fund. If one foundation doesn’t come through in a particular year, we’re still OK.
One foundation that donates to us gives for three years, and then you have to take a year off. That off-year requires us to make up the loss from one or more new sources of support. This is not necessarily unfortunate. It forces us to broaden our base of support.
We ask for money from a number of foundations – this year we received grants from eight foundations. Collectively they gave a total of $20-30,000. In some years, we receive a one-time grant from a foundation. But we are fortunate to be closely associated with an organization whose sole mission is to provide funding for music education enhancement in schools. UCAM is the primary recipient of their annual support, which this year is in excess of $16,000. Another important and significant annual supporter is “Friends of Chamber Music,” an organization that brings national and international chamber ensembles to Denver. They provide funding for UCAM to send chamber music ensembles to 12 Denver schools located in low income neighborhoods. UCAM also receives money from two local city governments.
UCAM qualifies for grants from two counties whose funds come from the metropolitan area’s arts tax. This year we received approximately $17,000. Our Board of Trustees contributes, and individuals outside the organization give to us. We have funds from a government project, in partnership with the Englewood school district. The support allows us to participate in programs that integrate the arts with the core curriculum, and programs that strengthen existing arts education in their schools.
The UCAM CD and Program Guide, recorded in 1997, provides a small stream of revenue each year, as does the sale of works owned by Up Close and Musical Publications. From the latter and performance royalties associated with the publications, our income benefits to more than $5,000 every year. We maintain a reserve fund of $60,000, half of which is invested in a 12-month certificate. The remainder is in our checking account and used for operating expenses.
Our organization benefits enormously from the generosity of the Museum of Outdoor Arts, which provides pro-bono office space and unlimited use of copy machines and computer hookups.
Q. When did you record your CD?
In 1997. It cost about $25,000. We recorded it during three four-hour sessions and without a conductor. It’s not going to win a Grammy, but it serves our purposes. I would love to be able to give one to every student when we visit a school, but the cost would be prohibitive. So, we sell a few to them, give a few away during each performance, and use them as a promotional tool. The maximum revenue in any given year from the sale of the CD has been $4000. But since many of the schools we visit are in low-income neighborhoods, few kids can really afford the small asking price of $5 per CD. My dream of selling thousands and thousands of them will, in all probability, never be realized.
UCAM adds to its yearly schedule by including several performances we refer to as “community concerts.” These range from all-Bach concerts of no more than 16 musicians to larger events requiring an orchestra of 55 musicians. An example of the latter is the annual collaborative concert with the Museum of Outdoor Arts and the David Taylor Dance Theatre. It is a multi-media show focused on a specific theme. The event attracts audiences of families, which is one of our goals.
Q. What sorts of music do you play?
We have eight pieces on each school program. In the early years we played a lot of Baroque music, because we weren’t trying to provide a profound artistic experience. Our primary goal was for the students to hear the different instruments and some wonderful music in the informal and comfortable setting of their schools. Our repertoire has evolved and grown over the years. No longer do we depend on the music of just one culture or time period. The school we’ll visit tomorrow will hear an overture for strings written by one of our musicians, followed by a movement of the Telemann Viola Concerto. I’ll play a short piece for cello by W. H. Squire. Our principal horn will play a movement of the concerto by Eric Ewazen. The bass will be featured in a Tango and the violin will be featured in the Monti Csardas. Following the Q & A, the program will close with a nifty arrangements for strings of La Bamba.
We present music in a respectful way, we talk a little, but we make our points quickly and get right to the music.
Each musician has his/her own style and own way of talking to the kids, but we believe the music is the most special part of the show.
Q. What age group(s) do you target?
Mostly elementary schools, but since the focus is on music, we can easily adapt to other ages. Good music appeals to people of any age.
Q. Do you have any formal training for what you do?
[Eric laughs.] On-the-job-training. I have a BM from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
Q. What advice would you give to young professionals who might want to form a group such as UCAM?