Ann Drinan  

Baltimore Symphony's OrchKids Program

Ann Drinan
May 17, 2019


Dan Trahey and Dr. Abreu Dan Trahey and El Sistema founder Dr. José Abreu (Click to enlarge.)

I met with Dan Trahey in the lobby lounge at the Meyerhoff one morning to ask him to elaborate on his thoughts about OrchKids and its mission in Baltimore. Dan has been to Venezuela several times to observe and participate in the El Sistema program there – most recently he took his Archipelago Project for a 10-day residency in June 2009. [Polyphonic did a Spotlight on the Archipelago Project’s trip to Venezuela last summer.] I know from his time in Hartford that Dan is extremely passionate about using music education to effect social change; he started an El Sistema nucleo at Peabody 5 years ago, and traveled to Baltimore every Friday while working for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. His passion and excitement for the project continues to grow, and he plans to expand the program to include four satellite nucleos in Baltimore, all feeding into a large orchestra at the Lockerman-Bundy school.

OrchKids is a social program. We’re hoping to be able to influence the way these children are living their lives and the decisions they make beyond school. We’re testing them and they’re thinking about their educational life in much longer terms than most kids.
What will they do after elementary school? Now they talk about their careers and about going to college. Kids with more education tend to make better decisions about their future and their finances.
We’re building harmony, fellowship, team building and self-respect. One day it’s a social program, the next day it’s a music program. If the kids aren’t progressing and making beautiful music, then the skills they develop aren’t going to carry over to other areas in their lives.
You can’t underestimate the importance of music. Scientists are doing a lot of testing and are showing that music can make major changes in a child’s life, which is why we’re interested in doing research on music and the brain. Crime rates go down when young people are involved with music – it is this amazing preventative medicine. Less bullets more brass!! As musicians we must be the catalyst for this social movement. We must accentuate this importance – we must stand up and say it forcefully!
We’re not giving children enough credit for what children can do – this 'we' includes parents, schools, and especially the music educators of the world. Shame on all of us. The only limitations the children have are what adults put on them. Why not put an orchestral instrument in their hands when they’re young? Wealthier kids have the opportunity to play from an early age. But a normal child can’t start until 5th or 6th grade because the public schools won’t fund it. The kids are kicking soccer balls and hitting baseballs years before they have a violin in their hands.
We should start the kids as early as possible on an instrument. I realize that not all of them can handle a tuba or a cello, but put something in their hands. Especially in the strings – the earlier the better. Music has become a luxury item – we’re trying to take the luxury out of it. We got some hate mail when we started this program from established music education groups and societies because we’re starting the children so early with instruments.
Music is different for them – they don’t see it as an academic subject. Singing or rapping or playing an instrument is cool – math may not be as easy as an entry point into a child's development.
We’re working with children here that have great rhythm, an increasingly solid work ethic and a want to excel musically. Everyone on my staff recognizes that these kids are musically talented and that we have the biggest natural resource – a child’s time and energy. Kids can be so focused on what we’re doing: if rehearsal is 5 hours, they’ll be there for 5 hours. They’re greater than gold – these kids can do it!
In the face of all this negativity and crime, there’s a tremendous amount of beauty here – that’s the can-do attitude!

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