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A Musical Start to a Dream

All second-graders in Montgomery County get to see National Philharmonic perform at Music Center at Strathmore.

Monica Oves has been studying the piano since she was 5. Jack Causey began playing when he was 6.

Now both 7, Monica and Jack are contemplating their musical futures after seeing the National Philharmonic perform at the Music Center at Strathmore Dec. 8.

“I’d like to learn the double bass, the cello. I’d like to learn all the big instruments,” said Jack, a second-grader at Bells Mill Elementary.

Monica, also a Bells Mill second-grader still wants to keep her options open.

“I was planning to be a scientist when I grow up. … I’m really still thinking about being a doctor, being a musician,” she said. “I’m still little.”

Whatever she decides, she’ll grow up with a newfound appreciation of music. She said she would “definitely” return to see concerts at Strathmore and that she hopes that other children will have the chance to go in the future.

“I would suggest that. I would do this every day,” she said. “For music every Thursday I would go to orchestra.”

MONICA AND JACK were at Strathmore as part of an initiative, now in its second year, to bring every second-grader in Montgomery County Schools to Strathmore for an educational concert program designed to keep them engaged and hopefully spark an interest in orchestral music.

There are about 10,000 second-graders in the county, so the concert is performed six times over three days to accommodate them all in the 1,900-seat concert hall. The 40-minute concert includes an orchestral rendition of “Happy Birthday,” three traditional concertos, and “Little Train of Caipira” by Heitor Villa-Lobos, in which the children sing along and perform hand movements they studied in class before the performances.

The final piece is “The Thrill of the Orchestra,” which composer Russell Peck wrote specifically for the second-grader concerts. Peck narrates the symphony, in turns isolating the woodwind, brass, percussion, and string sections to help students understand the different types of instruments.

Maestro Pitor Gajewski, conductor of the National Philharmonic, designed the concert program and approached Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast with the idea last year. Weast wholeheartedly endorsed it and last year’s second-graders saw the performances two months before the new Music Center opened to the public in March.

“He was fantastic. He got right behind the whole thing,” Gajewski said of Weast. “He said, ‘These kids are going. Make it work.’”

The concerts are jointly funded by Comcast Corp. and the RFI Foundation, Potomac resident and U.S. Senate candidate Josh Rales’ charitable foundation. Strathmore and The National Philharmonic both provide their services at reduced costs.

GAJEWSKI ADMITS that he didn’t know whether the concerts would be a success. He had originally hoped to play for older children — fifth-graders perhaps. But an audience of 2,000, 7- and 8-year-olds? Anything could happen.

“I was horrified. I was absolutely horrified that it would fall flat on its face,” Gajewski said. “The big surprise was that the kids were so incredibly well prepared and so incredibly well-behaved and so responsive. … We tried to do little funny things, but we didn’t know if it was going to be funny … The kids just ate it up.”

His fears notwithstanding, Gajewski’s relish for the program is obvious on-stage. A father of two, he speaks with the rising intonation used for bedtime stories but never condescends to the children as he explains what overtures, soloists and composers are.

The children repay his with rapt attention and a kind of sincerity that tops even the most enthusiastic Saturday night crowd.

“Their response is more from the heart. As you become an adult you become inhibited and also you’re thinking about thousands of other things. I doubt these kids are thinking about [anything else],” he said. “When they’re here, this is it. The stage is all they’ve got and the response is right from the heart. So they’re a wonderful, wonderful audience.”

It doesn’t take a degree in statistics to conclude that among the 10,000 second-graders who saw the performances, there are probably a few future soloists, maybe even a conductor, maybe a composer.

But organizers all said that they hope the audience will inspire a love of music even if the outcome is something less than a professional career. Gajewski makes a plug during the concert for taking up an instrument and he and other organizers cited research showing that students who play an instrument do better in school than those who don’t.

Strathmore President and CEO Eliot Pfanstiehl called last year’s second-grader concerts the most gratifying moment in his 25-year career in the arts. Of course Strathmore has a selfish interest in the program too, he said:

“If we don’t do this now, who’s going to be in those seats in 20 years?”

HE HAS A point. Consider Monica’s concern.

“We got off the bus and when I saw the big huge building, I was like, ‘Please give me good luck because I’m afraid of loud sounds like the tuba. I was afraid the tuba would be really loud,” she said.

But inside some older children, fifth-graders said, “Enjoy your concert,” as she entered the hall. She talked with a teacher about what to expect. She watched a 16-year-old perform a violin solo, which she called a highlight. And she learned something.

“I learned that the tuba guy plays scary or sometimes funny but it’s OK to go to a concert even though the tuba is there because it’s still going to play softly,” she said.

She said she also felt grown-up. Most children don’t get to go to concerts at all, and if they do it’s with their parents.

“You don’t get to go alone. You always have to listen to your parents and you never get to talk to your friends,” she said. “I felt like I was like 24 years old.”

With benefits like that, organizers have almost started treating the years before the concert program as one giant missed opportunity, and why Friday’s snow was a giant disappointment.

The two-a-day concerts are already a perfect storm of logistics — coordinating buses from every elementary school in the county, planning seating, and quickly turning over the concert hall to prepare for the second group. Tuesday was the first of the three planned concert dates this year but MCPS’s late opening forced the schedule to be pushed back one day.

Students attended on Wednesday and Thursday, but school was canceled due to snow on Friday, and that concert cannot be rescheduled.

That didn’t sit well with Jane Coyne, vice president of marketing and communications for the National Philharmonic.

“It can be life-changing what happened here,” Coyne said of the concerts. “You can’t just say 3,000 kids didn’t get a chance to hear it.”

In response, the National Philharmonic and Strathmore — both of which already took a financial hit due to the snowed-out performance — will invite every child that was shut out of this year’s concerts to attend one of four regular Philharmonic performances later this year with both of their parents, for free.

Rales and Comcast have already pledged funding for next year, when the concerts will be moved back to November.