Dan Trahey of OrchKids

Mike Lawson • Features • September 19, 2013

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OrchKids program blossoms under watchful eyes

By Eliahu Sussman

In addition to being a highly regarded professional ensemble, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is also the parent organization of OrchKids, a music education program for underprivileged youths modeled after Venezuala’s El Sistema. Dan Trahey, OrchKids director of artistic programming, first spoke with SBO in December of 2010 for a feature on El Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. In this follow-up interview, Trahey outlines the progress the organization has made in the past few years and Marin Alsop’s role with the program, while also clarifying some possible misconceptions about how El Sistema-inspired music education initiatives relate to traditional school music programs.

School Band & Orchestra: Hey Dan – it’s great to talk to you again! How is the OrchKids program coming along?

 Dan Trahey: Very well! We’ve expanded into five sites this year, and we’ll reach approximately 900 kids. Our kids are now studying somewhere between 25 and 30 hours per week, which is up from the original number of 4.5 hours per week when we first began the program. Last year, the OrchKids did over 50 concerts for over 125,000 audience members.

SBO: In addition to being the parent organization, what role does the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra play with the OrchKids?

 DT: Our kids are attending between two and 10 or 15 concerts per year with the professional group. We play on a subscription series, we play some of the kiddie shows – some of the orchestral musicians are teaching – it’s fairly substantial support, both in the teaching and administrative ends.

SBO: How active is Marin Alsop with the OrchKids?

 DT: It’s surprising – people in these top positions are often figureheads, but that’s just not the case with Marin. She helps me collaborate with guest artists, she brings a lot of attention – and financial attention – to the program, and she is involved with the commissions that we do. We have conversations about pedagogy on just about a weekly basis. This woman is the supreme advocate for children and for people that don’t have as much as other people. She really gets what is happening in society when resources are distributed unevenly, there isn’t a strong family structure, and all of that kind of stuff. Really, I’d call her the supreme advocate for OrchKids, music education, and really for the children of Baltimore.

Without her, the program doesn’t exist in the first place. And if it did exist, it would be a tiny little thing. Instead, it’s thriving.

SBO: Where does the BSO stand to benefit from running a program like the OrchKids?

 DT: The Baltimore Symphony is interesting because, in its bylaws, it is described as an organization of the community. I was recently reading those bylaws, and I thought to myself, “Oh my god, this is exactly what [Jose Antonio] Abreu [founder of the El Sistema movement] did in Venezuela. It just turns out that the BSO has had it going for a long time. It’s amazing that people that long ago had that in their mission.

More than just a performing arts ensemble, it’s a community-based organization. It also diversifies the audience base, the demographic that we’re serving. It just makes it a much more social place to be.

SBO: Has OrchKids partnered with schools, then? Are these generally kids that don’t receive school instruction?

DT: We try to make it supplemental. There aren’t a lot of schools left in Baltimore City that have music in the curriculum, but we do require the schools we work with to have some pre-existing music education. Then we partner with the teachers at that school and they generally become part of our staff.

I want to make one thing clear: Nobody should be in the business of reallocating funds away from a curricular school music program and into an afterschool program. However, afterschool and before-school activities are certainly a good way to get more people involved. For instance, the physical education class teaches us about the rules of, say ice hockey, but that’s different from the ice hockey team, which meets before or after school.

In some respects, I don’t think that the El Sistema movement has done a very good job of explaining itself. Our whole model is based on something that quality school music programs have been doing for a long time. Jose Antonio Abreu came to America, looked at our school system, and said, “I want to do this in Venezuela.” It’s actually not about finding a better way to do things, so much as reinvigorating what’s already been happening.

SBO: Where do you see the organization going, both short-term and long-term?

 DT: We are close to having a touring ensemble. We’re going to be able to take this group to places like Philadelphia, where they are cutting all of their school music programs. OrchKids is starting to be seen as a place where people can come to feel re-invigorated about music education. When you come, you see that there are no limits to youth making music. We just finished a big conference for music educators who are socially minded. We have multiple OrchKids models where people come and study with us and then they go off and start their own programs.

We’re getting a lot of attention from school administrators who come to us and say, “I have a music teacher in my school, but I don’t feel like I’m getting good bang for the buck.” We’re actually doing a lot of advocacy for music educators now where we say to these principals, “You can’t go running once a week and expect to get in shape. You can’t rehearse your band once a week and expect the band to sound great.” We’re going back and teaching these administrators what it means to run a real music education program in their public schools. This is something where sometimes music educators can’t advocate for themselves, because their jobs are on the line.

We have been able to help principals and administrators realize what they have to do to make a music program happen in the school. So we’re seeing an increased interest in music education from many people, besides just us music educators. Those are long-term goals.

As far as short-term goals, we are looking to grow the program and serve more kids.

SBO: Down the line, do you envision the OrchKids as something of a farm system for the parent organization?

DT: I know for a fact that kids in OrchKids are going to make it into major orchestras. There’s no way that you can give a child as much musical direction and support as we’ve been giving them and not have them end up on that path. When you’re studying music this much, when it’s the focus of your life, you’re going to progress. At the same time, that’s not the mission of what we’re doing.

Rather than assimilating into some other ensembles, I’m hoping that we’ll actually be able to create our own orchestra that sounds like East Baltimore, or West Baltimore, or Omaha, Nebraska, or wherever they might come from. One of our goals is to create more autonomy in the orchestras so a discerning listener might be able to tell the difference between a youth orchestra in Detroit and a youth orchestra in Baltimore, just as you might be able to tell the difference between an indie band between those two places – in Baltimore we have a little bit more of a jazz influence, whereas Detroit is more soul and blues-based.

Hopefully, we’re going to create some autonomy so people can actually tell the difference between these things. Also, our styles of concerts are different. I’m hopeful that our kids are going to grow up and start their own orchestras, as well as being at a level where they could play in a group like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

SBO: Are there any other key takeaways that you wish music educators knew about the OrchKids and similar programs?

 DT: Speaking of methodology concerns me, because I think you should do whatever you do, the best that you can do it. But there are things that perhaps people could be doing more of, like starting kids in larger ensembles as young as possible – whether those are ORFF ensembles, recorder ensembles, violin projects, or even traditional orchestra ensembles. We’ve looked at a number of different models – like in Austria, the brass bands have a ton of players starting in second grade, and in Venezuela, the harp players start in first grade. In this country, it’s been decided that students can start violin early, but not really any other instruments.

This won’t be a surprise to most people, but performance-based ensembles are so important. You can learn what you need to learn about music through the experience of playing in the larger ensembles. People want to play music, and large ensembles are the best way to get kids involved. Do things that have instant access to music performance: getting kids performing as quickly as possible is one of our goals, whether through percussion ensembles, vocal ensembles, or something else. You cannot run a music program with one concert a semester. Imagine a basketball team playing one game a semester – no one would ever join. The performance is the big thing, that’s what makes us a community organization. Your band/orchestra/choir can be the spokesman for your program, your school, and your district.

Beyond that, music is a collaborative thing. We can’t do it alone as music educators. It takes help from the people around us. It doesn’t always take financing to do that – sometimes simply asking guest artists, clinicians, and members of local colleges or music organizations, “Will you come work with my band?” or “Will you sit in with my band?” can provide a huge boost.


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