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BSO Kids Program helping students around Baltimore

Stacy M. Brown | 12/30/2014, 6 a.m.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is easily identified for its artistic excellence and, over the years, the organization has been able ...
OrchKids student Asia Palmer and OrchKids Artistic Director Dan Trahey meet with First Lady Michelle Obama at a recent awards ceremony at the White House. (Courtesy Photo/The White House)

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is easily identified for its artistic excellence and, over the years, the organization has been able to attract a devoted following not just locally, but the world over.

The orchestra made music history in 2007 when Maestra Marin Alsop led her inaugural concerts, becoming the twelfth music director in the orchestra’s history and the first woman to head a major American orchestra.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has offered programs of Beethoven and Bernstein and many other highly regarded compositions and recitals but, among the most endearing to Dan Trahey is the orchestra’s OrchKids program which he says puts musical instruments into the hands of Baltimore school children regardless of their ability. However, more importantly, Trahey says, the program teaches life skills to young Baltimore residents in inner city and poor neighborhoods.

“The most valuable lesson isn’t that we’re providing instruction in playing an instrument, but it’s about teaching the kids, giving them something to think about,” said Trahey, OrchKids’ artistic director. “I firmly believe that an orchestra is the perfect metaphor for a functioning society, he said.

The program has grown since its beginning six years ago and now serves more than 750 students, who would not have an opportunity to learn music in public schools.

Through donations and grants, the BSO raises the approximately $1,200 that is need for each student to participate in the program. Instructors offer music classes twice a week during school hours at four different schools, including pre-kindergarten students. Some of the students attend after-school programs too, Trahey said.

“We just felt like [music] education was lacking in this town and we started with 25 kids and our goal was to show that by working in a consistent manner and creating a sense of longevity, that we’d get hundreds of thousands of kids playing music in Baltimore,” he said. “Our dream is to create the access for all 83,000 kids in Baltimore.”

Recently, the BSO announced that philanthropists Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker pledged their second gift of $1 million to the program, enabling OrchKids to expand to eight schools helping 1,600 by the 2018-2019 school year.

Trahey’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, he received an award presented by first lady Michelle Obama that was given to just 12 youth programs nationwide. The Baltimore Sun reported that Trahey was consulted about launching programs similar to OrchKids in several other U.S. cities, plus Austria, Brazil and even Iraq.

“OrchKids has become a model program that people around the world want to know about,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the New York-based League of American Orchestras. “Dan is not only responsible for executing the program, but he brings his own vision to the work. He’s a zealot, a real crusader.”

Trahey says he interacts personally with every child that he can as often as he can. The program has resulted in not only bringing music education into the schools, but higher test scores in all subjects by the students who participate, according to Trahey.

He said it has also resulted in near perfect attendance by all of the students.

“Classical music is huge and we are here and we have a team of people in the schools every single day. We sink ourselves into the community,” said Trahey, who noted that music didn’t necessarily come easy for him, either.

“My own story is very simple. I wanted to play music and my parents didn’t have money but someone gave me a tuba and that’s all it took,” he said. “I wanted to create that same opportunity for others.”