He’s not one to make a big deal of it, or even be particularly pleased with the publicity, but when former Concertmaster Noah Bendix-Bagley performed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the PSO for the “welcome back” concert on December 2, he donated a portion (all he’s willing to say) of his solo fee to the PSO Musicians Care fund, which provides assistance to underfunded school music programs. Funded primarily by benefit concerts and administered by the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Musicians Care Fund has purchased new instruments, paid for the repair of donated instruments, and paid for transportation of students to PSO School Time concerts, all for school music programs that otherwise couldn’t afford these things. It is no secret that art and music are often the first to suffer when school districts run short of money, with consequences that cascade through society. Given the link between participation in school music programs like band and orchestra and lifelong enjoyment and support of the arts, it makes sense: if you want a tree to grow, you nourish the roots.
In Oakmont, Riverview High School band director Ian Hughes already sees a difference in his band’s prospects resulting from a PSO Musicians Care Fund grant that bought instruments for the Verner Elementary Band in neighboring Verona, which has an elementary school but no high school, sending its students to Riverview. While the Riverview and Verona school districts are separated geographically by a line on the map, they are much further apart in property tax rates and school funding, and in 2013 Hughes counted five students in the Verner Elementary Band, and three Verner students who moved on to the Riverview Band. Three.
“It’s hard to recruit students for band when the school doesn’t even own instruments to show the kids,” said Hughes. ‘’Learning to play an instrument is difficult enough when you have everything you need. We have to get students in the door, get them started. Music can make a tremendous difference in a student’s life, in every way. It teaches the relationship between effort and achievement, teaches patience and problem-solving, and builds confidence. Most importantly, it allows kids to join a community of other musicians, and find a ‘home’ in the band room. But first we have to get them in the door.”
In 2014, the Fund provided $2500 for the purchase of new instruments, and also provided a small number of high-quality, refurbished used instruments. Enrollment in the Verner band jumped to 25 students. This fall, as a new class of fourth graders gets their hands on the Fund-donated instruments, participation is at an all-time high of 34. Which is a big improvement over five.
Each instrument provided by the Fund has a gold and maroon metallic decal. “Students know that these are special instruments,” said Hughes. ‘’Whenever we listen to PSO recordings, or watch videos of the PSO, I explain to the kids that these musicians are the professional athletes of the music world. I think they take it personally that these amazing musicians care about them and want them to play music.”
The Fund has also provided instruments for programs in McKees Rocks, Finleyville, and Uniontown, and most recently to the Urban Pathways Charter School and the Pittsburgh Liberty K-5 school. “We look for programs where we can make a difference,” said PSO Principal Piccolo and Fund Committee Member Rhian Kenny. ‘’We can’t buy instruments for every kid who needs one, but there are school music programs that really have nothing, and if we can get a few kids started with good instruments in those districts, one thing may lead to another. These kids are our future.”
Note: Several ICSOM orchestras publish newsletters, including the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. This article from their most recent issue, by PSO bass clarinetist Jack Howell, reprinted by permission, exemplifies the fine writing one can find there. To subscribe, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.