Symphony building strong ties with student musicians

Deanna Tham

Deanna Tham of the Jacksonville Symphony shines a light on the symphony’s work with Communities in Schools to bring classical music to students who might never otherwise experience it.

The on-stage performance of a symphony orchestra is just the tip of the iceberg. There is the rehearsal, stage, library and personnel that must come together. Beyond that, there are hours of personal practice from each musician. And beyond even that, the decades of study and skill development that it takes to be able to master the music in just the mere weeks preceding a concert.

But the iceberg is much bigger than that. In addition to the enormous effort it takes to put on a concert, symphonic organizations all around the world take on a much bigger burden: the preservation of humanity that is encased in long-standing, classical art, and the responsibility of this humanity to change lives. The product you see on stage in one professional musician is the conclusion of the work of dozens of educators, hundreds of school and rented instruments, and thousands of fingers, lungs and minds that have reaped countless life skills from collaborative music — whether they continue onto the stage or not.

This work is not flashy, it doesn’t involve tails and shiny patent leather dress shoes; it doesn’t even take place in Jacoby Symphony Hall. It is the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras’ (JSYO) partnership with Communities in Schools (CIS). CIS provides free after-school tutoring and extracurricular programs. They provide a safe environment for elementary students away from challenges that may occur when the school day ends and offer enrichment opportunities to bolster the present and future quality of our communities.

John Wieland, principal bassist of the Jacksonville Symphony, is one of the musician-educators in our after-school string education partnership with CIS. Each week, Wieland travels to Woodland Acres, George W. Carver and Normandy elementary schools to give students a musical opportunity they would otherwise not have. Wieland knows about this struggle. His path to leading the Jacksonville Symphony’s bass section started in a program much like this one. His high school music teacher, after realizing his talent, drove him to the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia to secure a scholarship for music lessons that his family would not otherwise be able to afford. Now, the work he does is lifesaving. Wieland’s success rate of CIS students that have gone on to LaVilla, Douglas Anderson and even full-scholarship college music programs is high. But one of his biggest successes came just this year: after months of effort and encouragement, getting one young girl to finally make eye contact, find her voice and communicate with the world.

Patrice Evans, violinist with the Jacksonville Symphony, also works with after-school students at Pickett, Carter G. Woodson and Andrew Robinson elementary schools. She’s excited to see kids working and practicing in the classroom even before she arrives, waiting in anticipation to show off their progress. It’s a heartwarming moment, she says, to watch children, who did not know what a violin was, overcome massive life obstacles that some of us can only imagine and be able to play full songs only three months into session. She loves seeing those lightbulb moments: when the students finally experience the satisfaction of a collaborative duet or watching the intense frustration of learning to hold the bow wash away into a recognizable song. She says that once a certain technical level is achieved, it is gratifying for all involved to witness the students experience the joy of making music on their new instruments.

The JSYO-CIS partnership cannot be broached without mention of the strong icons who are more than just assets to our community. Leon Baxton, CEO of Communities in Schools, advocates for music education every chance he gets. It is because of people like him that the goal of diversity in the concert hall lives on. We can only hope that our music education initiatives empower students to become as steadfast and devoted to serving humanity as site coordinators Pat Smith and Sheila McNair, and Director of After-School Programs Chris Murphy. These women teach us every day how to be better human beings.

The way forward for the symphony orchestra is daunting, but we must remember that when it comes to our legacy, we only reap what we sow. I have the unique privilege, as assistant conductor (and therefore closely intertwined with the Jacksonville Symphony’s education initiatives), to get an up-close look at the future. I help to influence the landscape that will develop 20 or 30 years from now. The future of Jacksonville is bright, because our students represent the dream of a better tomorrow. They are a talented, smart and incredibly diverse group of amazing young people. It is my dream that we will serve many more students through our Communities in Schools program. I am so very proud of the deep connection between the Jacksonville Symphony and our community.

By Deanna Tham, Principal Conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras and Assistant Conductor to the Jacksonville Symphony