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Youth Symphony, Ambassador Program, and Family Concert

Idaho Falls Symphony Society

Our education and outreach programs include the Idaho Falls Youth Symphony (100+ students enrolled), the Ambassador Program (3,000+ students impacted), and the Family Concert (1,000+ children impacted). Each of these programs is designed to provide music education to local students and foster music appreciation in the next generation. The Youth Symphony brings together students from middle schools and high schools across the region, unifying different ages and abilities around the performance of great orchestral works. Our Ambassador Program sends select groups of our professional Symphony musicians into elementary schools (28 individual schools reached), and their visits are followed by a Book Bag in each library featuring books on music and performance. Finally, the 2017 Family Concert was “Lemony Snicket: The Composer is Dead,” based on the popular children’s book series. The Family Concert includes an interactive Instrument Petting Zoo, where children of all ages are given a first-hand introduction to the instruments of the orchestra by our friendly (and patient!) musicians.

The Essential Question that guided our projects’ focus was:

Do our education programs provide the community with access to music education for children of all ages?

We are definitely meeting the goal of our essential question. We perform music for families with babies and toddlers at the Family Concert; we introduce musical concepts to elementary schools through the Ambassador Program; and we provide orchestral training (and in many cases, music lesson scholarships) to the adolescent and teenage members of our Youth Symphony.

The continuum between programs ensures that concepts carry from one age into the next while targeting Idaho Content Standards in the Humanities. From “establishing cultural context” and “using musical vocabulary” with our youngest generations, to nurturing an orchestra of students as they build the skills to “communicate through music with creative expression,” we are supporting ongoing Content Standards with our work. We are actively focused on making better citizens by showing our young people how to appreciate and master music.

A survey of Youth Symphony students this year supports our conclusion: 90% reported a Positive or Very Positive experience. One student commented, “It is very good for me and has improved me not only as a musician but as a person in general.” Another wrote, “Because of Youth Symphony, I have grown greatly in and out of music and other activities.” “I feel I’m being utilized and respected as a professional,” wrote another student. We are proud to have this trajectory for our youth programs.

At the conclusion of the project, students responded to questions related to the identified Standards:

One of the major issues facing our Youth Symphony is the requirement to also participate in your school ensemble. For some students, their school doesn’t have an ensemble; others are home-schooled; others are faced with scheduling conflicts; others are not satisfied with their school ensembles. By requiring that they participate in school programs, our view is that we are bolstering enrollment and fostering partnership.

We posed the question to our students in the recent survey: 46% said they agree with the requirement, while a combined 27% said their school program wasn’t worth their time. That supports our having the requirement, but also begs the question: what can we do to help improve our school programs? This has become a priority for our work moving forward.

When asked, “Does the Youth Symphony contribute positively to your life?”, most feedback was very encouraging: “It pushes me to be better,” “It has taught me dedication,” “It gives me something to work towards,” and “It has made my work ethic more efficient, and it’s taught me how to accept responsibility for my actions.” We are pleased with these results after a season of demanding concerts. One of our students hit the nail on the head, making the offhand comment: “I think if we performed more for children then they would be more interested in picking up a musical instrument.”

Impact

We are helping our young people make important connections between different artistic mediums. As noted, our Family Concert featured the popular children’s book character Lemony Snicket. After the concert, one mother brought her elementary-school-aged son to the front of the stage to meet the musicians. He said he hadn’t heard of Lemony Snicket until our Symphony Book Bags arrived with the Ambassador visit to his school. The young man was thrilled to shake hands with Lemony Snicket (our actor Mike Nelson) and his mother was thrilled that the book and music struck the same chords.

As part of a unique collaboration with the Compass Academy charter school in Idaho Falls, our Youth Symphony performance of the great Russian masterpiece “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky became part of a concert called “Night at the Gallery.” The lobby was setup like an art gallery, with original artworks by Compass and Youth Symphony students all inspired by the Russian music being played that night in the concert. A printed program book recreated all the artwork, along with each student’s description of the connection between the music and their visual creation.

What a great surprise to see a talented cello player paint a picture inspired by the music she had been learning for Youth Symphony. We cannot imagine another creative process being more cohesive and inspiring.

Reflection

Each of our efforts have had excellent outcomes this season. The Family Concert in particular has taken on a life of its own: the orchestra looks forward to performing for bouncing crowds of kids, and we have added so many new names to our Symphony community by reaching out to new families. The programming possibilities for the Family Concerts are limitless, and it provides our music director with an enriching creative outlet.

Youth Symphony and Ambassador programs are challenging administratively. The scheduling process for the Ambassador program is particularly taxing on our staff and volunteers. Teachers value their classroom time, and each one seems to juggle a different testing and parent conference schedule, making it difficult to squeeze the Ambassador visits into a myriad of tight schedules. We have found that in-person visits to school administrators solves many of the scheduling problems, and we would encourage others to do the same.

In response to the challenges of sustaining the administrative tasks of our growing Youth Symphony, we have created an additional paid staff position for the General Manager of the group. This has alleviated our volunteers and devoted parents to take a more supportive role, rather than being burdened with policy minutiae and the weekly onslaught of attendance issues, for example. When the dust settles, we expect that by having a single, centralized person take on administrative responsibilities, the music itself will improve, because often recurring systemic problems have a way of interfering with artistic quality — especially for adolescent kids whose lives are already so complicated.

Overall we are motivated by the positive impact of our programs. Now we hope to increase the accessibility of each program as the coming season approaches.

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