Ann Drinan  

Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids Program

Ann Drinan
May 17, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Dan Trahey, Artistic Director of OrchKids, worked for the Education Department at the Hartford Symphony for many years; he contacted me and suggested that I come down and take a look at the OrchKids program for Polyphonic. I spent 3 days at the Lockerman- Bundy Elementary School, home of OrchKids, in April, 2010, and decided the best article I could write for Polyphonic would describe the nitty-gritty of how OrchKids engages the kids, both during regular school hours and in the after-school program. In other words, what does the program actually do with all the kids?

CBS' 60 Minutes aired a story about Gustavo Dudamel, YOLA (Youth Orchestra LA) and OrchKids on May 16; you can watch it by visiting

The Baltimore Symphony also has a video about OrchKids on their website: OrchKids.

I must apologize for the quality of the photos. My digital camera died on the way to Baltimore (may it rest in peace) and I bought a throw-away camera at CVS. I think it's more important to give you a sense of how the program works than to worry about the horrible graininess of the photos, so I've used some of them here.

- Ann Drinan

OrchKids is a community engagement program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that brings musicianship, instrument instruction, and ensemble playing to young children at an inner-city West Baltimore elementary school. According to a BSO press release, “OrchKids is a year-round after-school program designed to create social change and nurture promising futures for youth in Baltimore City neighborhoods. OrchKids is a cornerstone of the BSO’s efforts to expand the orchestra’s relevance within the city’s broad and diverse community. In collaboration with several community partners, which includes the Baltimore City Public Schools, OrchKids provides music education, instruments and mentorship at no cost to Baltimore’s neediest youngsters.”

But OrchKids is so much more than what’s implied by the above paragraph. The program at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School is profoundly changing the lives of so many of the young students who choose to get involved.

Music Director Marin Alsop wanted to get the BSO more actively involved in the city of Baltimore, which includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country. She met with Jeffrey Sharkey, Director of the Peabody Institute, to discuss possible outreach programs in Baltimore, and he suggested that she speak with Dan Trahey, a tubist and teaching artist who teaches music teacher mentoring, community engagement, and runs the Tuned-In program at Peabody. Dan was familiar with Venezuela’s El Sistema program (Tuned-In is an El Sistema nucleo for older students) and Marin Alsop wanted to start something similar in Baltimore. Maestro Alsop decided to give $100,000 of her McArthur “genius” grant as a 4-to-1 matching grant to get the program launched, and the result is OrchKids.

First Year

The first year of OrchKids, September 2008 to June 2009, was with the first grade at Harriet Tubman Elementary School, but that school closed and they needed to find another school for the program. They worked with Dr. Andres Alonso, CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools, Michael Sarbanes, head of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement, and Jay Wolf Schlossberg Cohen of the Rebuilding Through Art Project to identify schools that would be open to the program and amenable to their ideals. Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School was a natural choice because most of the Harriet Tubman kids moved to this school, the Principal, Cynthia Cunningham-Evans, was very eager to incorporate the program into the school day, and the school had both a vacant office and a large room with a storage closet for the instruments. The OrchKids staff will expand the program to another elementary school in the fall of 2010; they work closely with the school system to identify likely candidate schools.

OrchKids chose a first grade class for their first year because they knew they’d be under the microscope from the media, and they wanted to show marked improvement from the beginning to the end of the year. The plan has always been to back up and start the students as young as possible, but they needed to have kids that could show a significant change in behavior, academics, and musical skills. They now start the children as young as 3 years old.

Relationship with the School

OrchKids Office Nick Skinner and Laterra Lassiter in the OrchKids office (Click to enlarge.)

Nick Skinner, OrchKids Site Coordinator, is onsite every day from 8:30 in the morning when the kids arrive until 6:30 at night when the kids go home, and is in close communication with the classroom teachers. (Nick and Dan have known each other since growing up together in Travers City MI; Nick works with Dan on his non-profit outreach ensemble, The Archipelago Project.) The intent of OrchKids is not to take over all music education in the schools. Indeed, one of the main tenets in the memo of understanding they have with the Baltimore City Public School System is that OrchKids wants to operate in schools that already have a full-time music teacher. They wish to supplement the existing music curriculum, not supersede it. Nick maintains that relationship – remaining respectful of the time the music educators need, and balancing OrchKids field trips and performances with the school’s testing schedule.

Nick retrieves packets and worksheets from classroom teachers, and gets information about what things individual students need extra help on. For example, classroom teachers provide specific vocabulary lists so the OrchKids teachers can use these words in conversation during the OrchKids lessons, not just in the homework tutoring sessions. The goal is to immerse the kids in the words they need to learn.

Fridays often involve field trips; these include education concerts by the Baltimore Symphony, side-by-side concerts with the Baltimore School for the Arts, and events at the Enoch Pratt public library. Artists from the Lyric Opera come to the school to do presentations, and OrchKids staff make arrangements to bring other special guests to the school. The OrchKids staff are very pleased with the cooperation they receive from Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School teachers and administrators. According to Dan, “There are not too many battles – we are in this together with the school teachers and administrators. We take the kids out of school so much, and the school is very flexible for us. After all, we have them for two 45-minute classes a week, plus sometimes all day to play a concert – but testing and academics always take precedence.”

Hillary Hahn Hillary Hahn, OrchKids Administrative Director (Click to enlarge.)

In the summer they take the kids to Orioles games at Camden Yards and on some nature outings. According to Hillary Hahn, OrchKids Administrative Director, “One of our goals for these outings is to get the parents to join us. As we prove ourselves to be a stable program, we see more parent involvement.”

Recently the OrchKids did a concert with graduates of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and students from the the Wolfe Street Academy in East Baltimore, the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and the Baltimore School for the Arts. The concert was about neighborhoods – the kids wrote all the music. The OrchKids have plans to have a regular Skype conference with Guildhall School's "Future Band." Dan describes the collaboration as a careful balance of creativity and precision: “We want to encourage a healthy creative process but also for the kids to sing in the right voices, clap and move together, and play as an ensemble. We’re cultivating them to be able to play. The OrchKids will perform their own composition from this collaboration on their final concert. We’ll polish it but it won’t be a finely honed performance.” Indeed, one of the tenets of El Sistema is to perform works in progress.

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