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SLSO reaches out to area youngsters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 3, 2010 - Powell Hall, with its French renaissance design and white and gold decor, has been the elegant home of the St. Louis Symphony since its restoration in 1968. From the massive stage, which can hold more than 100 musicians in addition to a sizeable chorus, the hall's 2,700 seats can seem intimidating - even for a seasoned performer.

So imagine walking into this luxurious environment as a second grade elementary school student - passing all those empty seats and climbing up the steps to the stage and taking a seat facing out into the hall and listening to two Symphony musicians play their instruments, talk about melody and read a story with flute accompaniment?

That was the setting last Tuesday afternoon for students from Mason Elementary School in south St. Louis city. The performance by musicians Carolyn Banham on oboe and English horn and Jennifer Nitchman on flute and piccolo provided an informal introduction to those instruments and their respective sounds and gave the students the chance to hear how the various instruments sounded together and learn about the concept of melody.

Despite being more than a little distracted by the empty seats looming behind the two musicians, the students became captivated by the presentation and responded readily when asked to recall the names of the instruments being played and to pick instruments for the musicians to use in duets.

A question and answer session revealed the children's curiosity about the instruments, the music - and a fascination with Powell Hall itself.

"Just how many seats are in here?" exclaimed one child incredulously.

"How do people get to those seats way up there?' asked another, pointing to the balcony.

That curiosity about music - and Powell Hall - is just what Marc Thayer, vice president for education and community partnerships, and Dacy Gillespie, education programs manager for the Symphony, were hoping to hear.

"We want to reach out into the community - especially with young students like these second graders from Mason Elementary - and make the Symphony and Powell Hall a real part of their lives," says Thayer during a pre-performance meeting in his upstairs office. "Our biggest goal is to make the Symphony and the musicians part of the fabric of the community. And not just with young people, but with older adults and others as well."

Usually the SLSO's educational presentations for young students take place in schools throughout the area, and at locations such as Tower Grove Park, churches and other place where the classical musicians can reach a more general audiences. But this performance was presented at Powell Hall for a specific reason.

"We try to do one of our educational programs on stage at Powell Hall early in the Symphony's season so we can introduce new musicians in the orchestra to the concept of educational outreach opportunities," says Thayer. "They will watch the program, then meet with our educational consultant, Richard Ashburner, as well as Carolyn and Jennifer, and talk about how effective the presentation was in terms of communicating the musical objectives to the children."

Ashburner, who recently retired after years working for the Special School District of St. Louis County, got involved with the Symphony as the manager for the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, a job he's had for more than 20 years. Eventually, Ashburner's skills as a teacher - and especially in his role as a professional development specialist for lesson planning -- came to the fore.

"Richard has been a tremendous asset for our educational outreach efforts," states Thayer. "He's really helped the musicians focus their musical presentations to make them as effective as they can possibly be in terms of really reaching and communicating with students."

After the students from Mason Elementary departed the stage, Ashburner and the new musicians went to a meeting room where he conducted a thorough analysis of Banham and Nitchman's presentation, using a detailed PowerPoint presentation to highlight how the educational program was honed and crafted by the musicians with his help. The goal? Maximize what he calls "learning opportunities" designed to appeal to multiple intelligences - not just musically, but also in terms of linguistic, logical, visual and spatial skills as well.

According to Thayer, Ashburner's efforts have not only improved the educational presentations offered by SLSO; they have inspired more musicians to participate in a variety of educational outreach efforts over the past few years.

"This is my ninth season working with the Symphony's educational programs," says Thayer. "And I have to tell you that the level of participation by SLSO musicians is very high compared to some other symphonies around the country. There's always been good general support from the musicians, the staff and the Symphony board, but we've been able to get a great response to participation by the musicians in educational outreach here.

"In fact," he continued, "we have a participation level of between 85 and 90 percent among the musicians in our educational programs. That's quite a high number, considering that it's not required of them. They are compensated, but there is no requirement that they volunteer to be part of these programs. And I think Richard's efforts have been very helpful in that regard."

SLSO's educational outreach projects have a strong focus on young students, with efforts that go beyond visits to schools with programs such as Banham and Nitchman's exploration of melody through duets. Performances at Powell Hall in the Kinder Konzerts, Young People's Concerts and Young Adults Concerts attract more than 40,000 students each season.

But Adopt-A-School, a program that has been in place since Thayer's arrival at SLSO in 2002, has created a higher level of interaction between the Symphony and area schools over a longer time period. In addition to visits to member schools by musicians presenting educational programs, Adopt-A-School brings an array of Symphony educational resources to students in an ongoing collaboration.

"We started Adopt-A-School in the fall of 2002 as a trial program here in the Grand Center neighborhood," says Thayer. "A not-for-profit group called Urban Strategies approached us about getting involved in supporting efforts to build resources for families and education in the local community, and we definitely wanted to support the neighborhood where we're located.

"Up until then, we had been making visits to about 150 schools once a year with our musicians. But when we started the Adopt-A-School program, we restructured things to be able to have a presence at the first school in the program, Carver Elementary, for at least four months. We started by going every week to interact with second graders."

Today, SLSO Adopt-A-School efforts are in five schools throughout St. Louis city and county, and it's an effort that SLSO's Education Program manager Dacy Gillespie has experienced as a teacher as well.

"I started working with the Symphony less that a year ago," she says. "Before that, I taught at Shaw Visual and Performing Arts Elementary School, and I saw first hand how valuable the SLSO programs really were for my students.

"The programs can be customized for the specific needs of each school, and for specific age groups," Gillespie says. "I've seen that it's a great resource - something that's not just taught out of a textbook. And it's also key that for many students, hearing the Symphony musicians play live may be the first time they've heard live music and had the chance to actually meet musicians. In addition, they often have not had the opportunity to hear music acoustically."

The Symphony's educational outreach efforts do extend beyond programs aimed at young people. For example, SLSO's "creative music program" collaborates with organizations such as Life Skills to provide a musical outlet for those with disabilities - bringing them to Powell Hall to participate in music-making activities in a concert setting.

But it's clear that the SLSO outreach programs are directed primarily at young people, bringing exposure to music to them at an early age - and building a love of music and potential future audiences for concerts at Powell Hall.

"We try to reach the children as early as possible," says Thayer. "We're doing more pre-school and Head Start events. The earlier the better. And thanks to sponsors like Monsanto, Target, the Ford Foundation and individual donors, we try to reach out to as many students, older adults and ethnic communities as we can. Our biggest goal is to bring the joy of music to people throughout the area. And especially with young people, we want to make SLSO and Powell Hall part of their lives. It's great when children come here and recognize a musician playing on stage because he or she came to their school and played music for them. It really gives them a sense of ownership - in the Symphony, and in music."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer.

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