by Michelle Sokol
Courtesy of The Republic
Life would be pointless without music.
That’s what fourth-grader Hayden Marks had to say April 8 after watching the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic perform its annual JCB Adventure Concert.
She watched as Phil — a penguin mascot curious about all things music — challenged Music Director and Conductor David Bowden to a sword fight, with the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sound track as accompaniment.
She continued to watch as the members in each musical group introduced an instrument and played a short tune.
“I want to try the drums,” she said. “It had cool beats.”
That means the Adventure Concert series — which reached 2,500 elementary students in a single morning with performances in the Columbus North Judson Erne Auditorium — was a success, said Vanessa Edwards, the Philharmonic’s education director.
“We want you to love making music,” Bowden told the hundreds of young students seated in front of him. “Just try it.”
He launched the concert shortly after he arrived in 1987. He said he hopes to entertain the children, but more so he hopes the students are persuaded to make music.
The concert, as well as several other educational programs put on by the Philharmonic, is part of a large emphasis to introduce young people from all backgrounds to arts and culture, building interest and appreciation at an early age.
It’s part of Bowden’s personal mission statement: “Making music changes lives.”
“This is a passion. This is at the core of who I am personally,” he said. “It has become the passion of our organization, and it is because of great people.”
The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic spends a greater percentage of its budget on education programs than almost any other orchestra of its size in the country, Edwards said.
The Philharmonic here led the country in investing in youth — in the 1990s, the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic was spending three times as much on education as any other orchestra of any size in the country, Bowden said.
The organization spent 15 percent on education last year — that’s more than it spent on marketing, administration, fundraising or resource development.
“Making music is so important to us, as is sharing music and our love of music with these kids,” Edwards said. “We’re raising the next generation of musicians.”
It’s also a strategic decision.
While symphonies in other cities are dying out and going under, Edwards said an investment in youth will reverse that trend.
“This is how we’re going to keep the orchestras thriving in Columbus — by fostering these kids,” she said.
Along with the Adventure Concerts, educational programming and outreach includes the Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir, the Choral Festival, strings classes in the schools, the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, strings camp, Regional Strings Invitational, Jammin’ with the Phil and Musicians in the Schools.
Some of the programs — such as Jammin’ with the Phil — are aimed at younger children to expose them for the first time. There’s an annual string instrument petting zoo there, where kids can try out a violin, viola, cello or bass.
The Philharmonic Youth Orchestra is one of the programs dedicated to older students who have demonstrated talent, passion and dedication.
The Adventure Concerts — where the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra is invited to play side-by-side with professional musicians — bridges the gap between the two types of education.
“It’s so much fun to make music,” Bowden told the children at the concert earlier this month. “If you work hard and if you learn to play an instrument, you might be able to do this, too.”
Although many of the programs charge tuition, scholarships are available. Bowden said no child will be turned away for financial reasons.
“We’re trying to reach kids that maybe would never have an opportunity,” Edwards said. “We break down all those barriers. We are giving them the chance to do something that could change their life.”
Importance of education
Margaret Powers, the Philharmonic’s executive director, said music has an impact on the way the brain works.
“For a long time, it was about the chicken or the egg,” she said. “Are music students smarter because they’re involved with music or are they involved in music because they’re smarter?”
It’s not that way anymore, Bowden said.
He has studied the research on music education, and he has presented it to the Rotary Club and the World Presidents’ Organization.
A few of the notable findings:
People who make music have an IQ 10 percent higher than those who do not.
Students who have been involved in music score 120 points higher on the SAT than those who have not.
Students from a low socioeconomic status who have had music training are 217 percent more likely to graduate from high school and enter college.
Bowden said he watched as programs that introduced instruments to children in elementary schools waned.
“Music trains the brain to learn, which is why I just can’t believe more schools don’t utilize music as a foundation element of education,” he said.
The reason is money — few elementary schools have the money to purchase instruments and hire instructors to engage students early.
Taylorsville Elementary School has a particularly motivated music teacher, Suleman Hussain, who secured nearly $9,000 in grant money from the Bartholomew Consolidated School Foundation and the Mockingbird Foundation to purchase instruments for the music classroom.
“Without that money, we would still only have enough instruments for half of the average class,” he said. “Operating at 50 percent is very limiting to student potential.”
But what about at the other schools?
“What we did as an organization was to say, ‘This is untenable,’” Bowden said. “We do not believe this should be allowed to occur, and we’ll fill the gap.”
The strings classes are now the primary feeder program into the musical ensemble at the middle and high school level, Bowden said; and they’re made possible by the diplomatic skills of Edwards and the support of Bartholomew Consolidated Superintendent John Quick.
Classes meet weekly before or after school at 11 area elementary schools and reach 190 students in all grades.
“It’s a perfect working relationship,” Edwards said. “It’s helping foster music and helping our kids grow and mature and be leaders in our community.”
Making a difference
Take a look at the top 10 seniors from local high schools or this year’s class of Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship finalists, and both lists include several musicians.
Edwards said that, although the research is telling about the importance of music education, the local success stories are just as much evidence.
Consider Kate Hamilton’s background.
The 27-year-old singer, actress and theater company manager started her career in the Columbus Indiana Children’s Choir almost two decades ago.
She returned to Columbus last weekend to perform in “Come to Cabaret” with pianist Janie Gordon at the Harlequin Theatre on Friday evening and then sang with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic the next night.
Michael Freed is another — although younger — success story.
The Columbus North High School junior has been playing violin since he was 5.
He said he first learned of the violin on “V Day” on Sesame Street. Shortly after, he enrolled in Philharmonic Strings Classes at Parkside Elementary School.
Now Freed is the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra concertmaster and an apprentice with the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic.
Edwards said music has changed her own life.
She grew up with music in the house — her mother played the piano and the organ and her father’s family was also musical — and she started playing violin in the fifth grade.
Now her job is to direct an education program that ensures children in Columbus and other surrounding communities have the same experience, no matter their socioeconomic background.
“It just led me to where I am today,” she said. “I was a very shy, quiet child. My experience in music probably put me more in front of people and gave me a better way to grow.”