The Harmony Program’s Feature in the New York Philharmonic’s November 2015 Playbill


During the month of November, the Harmony Program was featured in the New York Philharmonic’s Playbill. In “A Life-Changing Musical Journey” Madeline Rogers describes the Harmony Program’s collaboration with the New York Philharmonic and Philharmonic Jr. Read the article below:

A Life-Changing Musical Journey
By: Madeline Rogers

Through Philharmonic Academy, Jr., the Orchestra’s musicians share their knowledge and expertise to inspire New York-area pre-college musicians and music lovers.

The New York Philharmonic has been inspiring children for decades with its Young People’s Concerts, founded in 1924, and in-school education programs, which just celebrated a 20th anniversary. Such outreach went global in 2014 with the inauguration of the Shanghai Orchestra Academy and Residency Partnership, through which Philharmonic musicians travel regularly to China to instruct and inspire the next generation of orchestral musicians. This was the first in a growing New York Philharmonic Global Academy portfolio, which now includes partnerships with the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

That led Philharmonic administrators to ask themselves, “What are we doing in our own backyard?” according to Theodore Wiprud, the Philharmonic’s Vice President for Education, The Sue B. Mercy Chair. The result was Philharmonic Academy, Jr., which partners with schools and nonprofits to bring the Orchestra’s resources to local kids.

Philharmonic Academy, Jr., currently comprises two partnerships that, at first glance, seem worlds apart. The Harmony Program is an eight-year-old nonprofit that brings music training to children growing up in the city’s communities that have limited access to music education. Based on Venezuela’s famous El Sistema program, it targets kids with no prior music education, and provides them with instruments and three years of top-quality, after-school lessons—six to ten hours a week—to prepare them for the city’s competitive upper schools and youth orchestras. “We want these kids to be exposed to excellence, so we train them intensively and introduce them to the highest caliber musicians in the world, says Anne Fitzgibbon, Harmony ‘s executive director. “That’s where the Philharmonic comes in.”

Twenty miles north, in Scarsdale, the 70-year-old Hoff-Barthelson Music School offers comprehensive music education to children, from preschool through high school. Its Festival Orchestra was recently named one of the country’s ten best high school orchestras by the New York State Council on the Arts, and each year anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the school’s advanced students enter some of the country’s most prestigious conservatories. The primary goal, though, is not to produce professional musicians, but rather “to turn out the literate audiences of the future,” according to Joan Behrens Bergman, Hoff-Barthelson’s executive director. She also points out that despite the school’s location in one of New York’s most affluent suburbs, “many of our kids come from schools with subsidized lunch; we dole out about $170,000 a year in financial aid.”

Both partnerships, Wiprud explains, benefit from “the Philharmonic’s unparalleled abilitiy to give kids an inside view of what is required to become a top-level orchestra player, and to inspire them to go for that.” Each partnership offers some combination of master classes, coaching, and mentoring, tailored to the needs of the schools and their students. At Harmony, the centerpiece is an intensive, daylong master class in which more than 100 students of all levels, ages 9 to 14, come together in a large ensemble. The day begins with Philharmonic musicians coaching the kids in sectional rehearsals and culminates with the Philharmonic members sitting alongside the young musicians in a public performance. The newest addition to the Harmony Program began last year. “We wanted to do something for our most promising students,” says Anne Fitzgibbon. Thus was born the Harmony Program All Stars. Rigorous auditions, adjudicated by Philharmonic musicians, identified eight All Stars who were invited to attend a Young People’s Concert and a Philharmonic rehearsal, and meet Music Director Alan Gilbert. The grand finale was a day of coaching by Philharmonic musicians and a public performance at Lincoln Center’s David Rubenstein Atrium.

The Hoff-Barthelson activities focus on the Festival Orchestra’s spring concert—one of five offered each year. In 2016 Sibelius’s Second Symphony is on the spring calendars both of the New York Philharmonic (May 12-14) and of the student orchestra (June 11). In preparation for their performance, Festival Orchestra members will be coached in sectional rehearsals by Philharmonic members, who will also sit in during the run-through. The kids will also attend a Philharmonic rehearsal and a performance of the work. This new partnership builds on a 20-year-long relationship that includes the Elaine Stamas Residency, a daylong event at which Philharmonic musicians coach the school’s chamber groups and then perform chamber music for them. “The kids are so fortunate to benefit from the expertise of the Philharmonic musicians,” says Bergman. “As novices it is quite remarkable to be coached by such seasoned professionals.”

Philharmonic members who participate in the Academy feel privileged, too. Bass Trombone George Curran, active in the Harmony Program, explains: “I love to see the next generation learn to enjoy music. The look on their faces when they’re working together and finding new ways to express themselves is so rewarding.” Curran, who holds a bachelor’s in music education—a rarity for a to-level orchestra musician—worked with 15-year-old Justin Laurenceau, a 10th-grader at Brooklyn’s James Madison High School who aspires to become a member of a major orchestra. Last summer he took a step toward that goal by auditioning for the very competitive New York Youth Symphony. Although the official mentoring was over, Curran continued to speak with Justin and his mother as the audition approached. Justin, who was invited to sit in on rehearsals for the august ensemble, feels the audition process was “a great experience,” and says Curran’s teaching helped him through it: “He gave me more confidence to play for a large audience.”

Again, Harmony’s goal isn’t exclusively to produce professional musicians. Anne Fitzgibbon believes that “When music is part of kids’ everyday routine, they develop habits that will serve them well outside the classroom: listening, collaboration, perseverance.” Harmony student Wellington Jimenez, 13, a violist from Washington Heights, has learned those lessons, and more. Although he dreams of becoming an automotive engineer, “music is always going to be my right hand. I learned that music isn’t just entertainment; music is actually a feeling.”
His Philharmonic mentor, violinist Hae-Young Ham, glows when she talks about what working in the program has meant to her: “Wellington is a friendly, curious, and willing student, and I’ve enjoyed working with him and all the other students. My musical journey has been so life-changing that I want to share my experiences with young people. It is extremely gratifying to see music making a difference in their lives.

—Madeline Rogers, former Director of Publications at the Philharmonic, is a writer and creative services consultant to nonprofits.

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