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Learning for a Lifetime

Annapolis Symphony Academy prepares for spring concerts and the next phase of growth

By Rick Hutzell

When the 14 students at Eastport Elementary School laid eyes on the Orff instruments for the first time this spring, Jacque Schrader could see just how excited they were.

Xylophones, glockenspiels, and metallophones, the instruments resonate to project a sound when they hit with mallets. They may sound simple, but they are part of the Orff Schulwerk method of musical instruction – a deeply studied way of teaching young children a love for music through play, imitation, experimentation and personal expression.

They teach the whole student to love music as a whole by playing, singing and feeling the rhythm.

And they’re fun.

“Their eyes are bugging out of their heads when they see this,” said Schrader, a music teacher at Key School in Annapolis.

This spring, Schrader has been working at Eastport Elementary, too. She’s been leading the Annapolis Symphony Academy’s first Discovery class, designed to spread the love of music among kindergarteners and first-graders from surrounding neighborhoods.

It is the newest initiative of the academy, the educational arm of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra.  Discovery and programs for older students are all aimed and answering basic questions that are key to the future success of the ASO.

How do you help someone to love music? How do you reach new audiences with your art? How do you make your work relevant not just today but tomorrow and for years to come?

The answer is teaching, and not just any education but a coordinated program with the Annapolis Symphony Academy at its center. This spring, it is celebrating expansion, preparing for spring concerts and getting ready for the next phase of growth.

“Annapolis never really had an after-school full-time music program,” said Netanel Draiblate, director of the academy and the orchestra concertmaster. “You have youth orchestras right now and, here and there, private teachers. But nothing at the level that we wanted to see in the capital of Maryland, which we found to be kind of shocking in a way.”

So four years ago, Draiblate and former executive director Patrick Nugent developed the Annapolis Symphony Academy and brought in ASO Artistic Director Jose Luis Novo. Together with Anne Arundel County Public Schools, it offers programs for every age student through private lessons, ensemble participation and eventually through the Orion Youth Orchestra – set to give its first concert on June 10 –  and Discovery.

It is all geared to reaching a central goal of the orchestra’s five-year plan: more audiences made up of more diverse people.

“In general, from my perspective, the academy is one of the most important projects this orchestra has ever undertaken,” Novo said.

Draiblate leads the academy and talks about it with the zeal of someone on a mission. Four years ago, Anne Arundel County Public Schools came to the orchestra looking for programs to keep middle and high school students from dropping out of music instruction.

“One of the reasons why they quit is because we have to push the level up,” Draiblate said. “The level in our county leaves a lot to be desired. The public-school music teachers and administrators are doing everything they can to give the kids music inside the classroom – but, in general, the county currently seems to gravitate more towards sports then it does music.”

He said Howard, Prince George’s County and Montgomery counties have excellent youth orchestra programs, while Anne Arundel did not. Both ASO leaders and school officials, he said, wanted to change that.

“And that’s what we’re doing,” Draiblate said. “We are complying with a request from the public school system and trying to work with them on how we can help their kids be better musicians. Slowly but surely, help raise the level in the county.”

This spring, the program has grown to include 80 students across all its programs.

Until the addition of the Discovery program this year, the academy offered the Lyra Chamber Music Groups to develop beginning students’ skills and the Aries Youth Chamber Orchestra for intermediate students. The Aquarius Wind Ensemble also is just beginning this spring.

The academy also offers weekly private lessons, guest workshops and free access to Annapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts for students.

They all feed into the high-level Orion Youth Orchestra, which will offer its debut performance in June in a side-by-side concert with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra led by Novo.

Then next year, the academy will leap to its next phase. In addition to classes at Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold, it will expand to a second location and add a percussion program.

“So we’re now opening it up to the entire orchestral range of instruments,” Draiblate said

All of the programs have one ground rule. Every student must be taking private lessons to participate, either through academy instructors – which are exceptional Annapolis Symphony Orchestra tenured musicians – or with outside teachers.

For Anne Arundel County Public Schools, working with the academy is a chance to build on its advanced programs with instruction for younger students and students who can’t get private instruction without help.

“We do have very advanced programs here in the system,” said Jessica Valadie, music coordinator for county schools. “One of the things we have to do is to start students younger than we do here in the system, particularly in string instruments.”

“It provides scholarship funds to students who probably wouldn’t have resources who wouldn’t be able to capture it otherwise.”

It’s not an inexpensive endeavor. Academy tuition fees range from $500 per semester for the youngest students to $2,000 per semester for instruction and ensemble programs. Students accepted into the Orion receive full merit-based scholarships and pay no ensemble tuition. They also get to work with Novo and the academy’s professional parent orchestra.

“That doesn’t exist anywhere in the country,” Draiblate said.

The fee structure is cheaper than comparable programs in the region, but it can still be a big financial commitment. To help with that cost, the academy offers robust financial aid.

“We have now two endowed scholarships for Academy musicians,” Draiblate said.

The academy awarded $75,000 in financial aid to students during the 2021-2022 academic year, both through needs- and merit-based programs.

In June, the academy will announce recipients of the Howard and Thea Pinskey Scholarship and the Patricia Edward Scholarship.

The Edwards prize is named for the first ASO executive director and a force for decades in the Annapolis music and arts community. She led the orchestra from its origins as a community arts group to its status as a professional orchestra with a path for growth. She passed away in January 2021 at age 83.

The Pinskey scholarship is named for two longtime orchestra patrons who died of COVID last year.

“He got it, then she got it and they died within days,” said Lisa Hillman, a close friend of Thea Pinskey. “It was horrible for those of us who knew them.”

The retired president of the Anne Arundel Medical Center Foundation and a longtime area philanthropist, Hillman worked with people close to the Pinskeys and raised $100,000 to help pay the costs for students participating in academy programs.

She said the couple had no children and loved the symphony, so it was a natural fit to endow a scholarship in their names.

Draiblate said the whole idea of the academy started through philanthropy, based on donations from Annapolis philanthropists Peter Chambliss and Jane Campbell-Chambliss.

Students must audition to get into the Academy, except for the Discovery program. Students submit an audition video by July 15 to be considered. The academy responds with a letter by Aug. 1 outlining the costs and what options are available for help.

But the academy offers enough programs that there is a place for anyone willing to work hard.

“We will take the kids without any prior experience,” Draiblate said.

One purpose of the academy is to help create a more diverse audience and increase diversity among musicians who perform the type of music that the ASO performs. That means reaching out to communities where the orchestra isn’t a recognizable entity.

“We want the orchestra and the people who come to listen to the orchestra to represent the community,” Draiblate said. “Right now, it doesn’t really do that. You don’t see a lot of minorities on the stage, and you don’t see a lot of minorities in the audience.”

To tackle that, the academy wants to split the demographic of kids taking part right down the middle, with half from minority and underrepresenting backgrounds. It aims to do that without compromising the skill level of students admitted.

“So, for example, Latinos, African-American, East Indian students,” Draiblate said. “And with the introduction of Discovery this year, we’re very, very close to 50-50. Because Discovery – the 14 kids we have at Eastport Elementary – are minorities. All of them.”

What Draiblate said is impossible to tell is where students take what they learn at the academy. Some will turn what they learn at the academy into college scholarships. A few will become professional musicians, but many will go on to just have an educated appreciation for music.

“You can never tell which one of these kids is just like going to flourish and go…” he said. “But we have kids with heart who are really hard workers and you can see that they connect to what we’re giving them.”

Whether the program ever finds the next virtuoso is unknowable.

“We’re still working on that,” Draiblate said, “We’re looking for that really exceptional kid. But as I mentioned before, we have some really great kids, some really accomplished kids. But we have a lot of work to do to raise the level of music in the county; thankfully, we assembled some of the best teachers around to help with that mission.”

Novo said that students should expect to learn more than just music.

“It will integrate young people into a world that supports so many great ethical values for any human being: discipline, dedication, collectivity, learning how to reach demanding goals, uniting forces to accomplish them,” he said.

“That’s the story of my life. I’ve been a musician since I was very little. I’ve learned everything through music. I can’t see my life without it.”

Novo hasn’t been to Eastport Elementary yet, to see the youngest Academy students taking part in the Discovery program. But he’s excited by the prospect of children following a path similar to the one he experienced.

Draiblate and Valadie, the county schools music coordinator, hope Discovery will expand to other Annapolis-area schools. Establishing it in community schools eliminates the need for after-school transportation required for so many enhancement programs.

“We would love for it to expand … to other schools,” Valadie said. “Annapolis first.”

Schrader, the Key School teacher leading the after-school classes, said the Orff Schulwerk method offers just what Novo wants for Academy students: good life skills.

“It’s not like we learned music; sitting at a desk,” she said. “It involves singing and movement.

It’s perfect for this Discovery program. It offers a huge opportunity for discovery itself.”

She said the staff at Eastport Elementary have been supportive, sharing space and offering help. But the students, some of her first who speak English as a second language, have been a delight.

“Honestly, the kids are fabulous.”

Upcoming concerts:

  • The Lyra Chamber Music Ensembles and Aries Youth Chamber Orchestra will perform a spring concert at 7:30 p.m. on May 13 at the Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park. They will be led by Conductor Heather Haughn and coaches Nicole Boguslaw, Susan Dapkunas and Daniel Shomper. The concert is free.
  • Annapolis Symphony Academy Honors Recital will take place at 3 p.m. on May 22 at Temple Beth Shalom, 1461 Baltimore Annapolis Blvd. in Arnold. The solo recitals are free.
  • The Orion Youth Orchestra will celebrate its public debut in a side-by-side concert with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, led by Artistic Director José -Luis Novo and Assistant Director Shun Yao. Music includes Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 6 in C Major, D.589 performed with solo clarinetist Keyvar Smith-Herold. The event takes place at 7:30 p.m. on June 10 at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. in Annapolis.

For more information, visit TunedToYouth.org or contact the academy at ndraiblate@annapolissymphony.org