Give a child an instrument and change a community. That is the concept at the heart of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's (DSO) new series of programs and residencies aimed to expand arts education in Southern Dallas.
"We decided to pick one community to do a really deep, broad and long-term initiative so that we could see the impact over time. We decided that Southern Dallas was a good place to start because we felt this area of the city is not getting its fair share of arts education, music in particular," Kim Noltemy, President and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Association, said.
With support from Capital One and The Eugene McDermott Foundation, the program includes providing instruments and lessons to children in local schools and in after-school programs free of charge, weekend and evening concerts featuring DSO musicians in the community, and collaborative projects with artists in the community.
"This is meant to be a deep program that really connects people," Noltemy said. "This is about developing a love for the music itself and for children to get the benefits of what music does for your brain and how it helps you organize your life: the discipline, the tenacity, the organizational skills, learning to read music and how it helps you in math."
The DSO is working with multiple partners to identify locations for the multi-faceted program, host instrument drives, develop curriculum, and create engaging concert experiences. Among the DSO's partners are the Dallas Independent School District, Big Thought, Verdigris Ensemble, Deep Vellum Books in Deep Ellum, Top Ten Records in Oak Cliff, and DSO musicians.
"We don't think we know what's needed. We're asking what's needed and then we're going to implement what we're asked to do and we're going to keep improving it," Noltemy said, noting the initiative will benefit from the partners' collective experience. "We all want to do the same thing. If we all coordinate and work together and build on each other, it is so much better for everyone in Dallas."
At a variety of events throughout Southern Dallas, DSO musicians and partners introduce a variety of instruments to elementary school-aged children. It's a joyous cacophony of discovery.
"For some of them, they've never played an instrument before. They're just making sounds right now, which is important. That's the start of it," Jessica Garland, a musician and community liaison, said.
By June 1, the DSO hopes to give 500 children instruments and begin lessons in the summer. 'To get from just making a sound to making some music you can play, and people will respond, that's the big gap," Noltemy said. "Once you do that, people really fall in love with the music and their instrument."
Finding that right instrument is a musical epiphany. "It's that first 'aha' moment when you actually put a clarinet mouthpiece in a kid's mouth and they go, 'Whoa, I didn't know I could do that.' And then suddenly it's, 'Oh, I want to make more of that,'" Jamie Allen, the DSO's Director of Education, said.
The children's interest is evenly divided between the instruments. "They have to try because you have to find the instrument that resonates well with you. I had an interested student today ask me how it feels to play the harp. That's a great question! I feel relaxed. That's why I play this instrument and I hope they can feel that way too," Garland said.
As soon as a child begins to play, they discover an emotional channel to express themselves. "If they find a really strong outlet to be able to do that in a safe space where they can do that with other people collaboratively and realize that it's not a zero-sum game, that's hugely important," Allen said.
Inspiring children of color is another goal of this initiative. "It's important when you're reaching out to a community to see someone who looks like you that's also playing these instruments. It increases access to the instruments and also people that you can relate to. You believe this is something that's possible, something you can do," Garland said.
In five years, Noltemy hopes this program will increase diversity in classical music. "If we can get more children of color playing string instruments at a high level, this is what we need to do for our orchestras in this country. It's just not right that we don't see the diversity that we should in orchestras across America," Noltemy said. "It a historic and long-term problem and this is one thing the Dallas Symphony can do to help with that in the long run."
Allen hopes the program grows to envelop Southern Dallas, increasing access to thousands of children and requiring more dedicated venues, teachers and schools committed to the program. "If I'm a child growing up in Southern Dallas and I decide one day I want to play an instrument, there's an easy way to do it," he said. "There's no barriers."