Overview: Reading Orchestra Zone is a collaboration between Reading Symphony Orchestra and the Reading School District to offer free after-school music lessons on a weekly basis, year-round to children of our inner-city district, which leads the state in poverty ranking, low achievement levels and a highly diverse population. The district music program is hampered by a highly mobile student base, language barriers, and staffing obstacles that limit individual instrumental lessons. The result is a high school level orchestra that retains only 10% of the students that first started on instruments in elementary school. Worthy 5th grade students are recommended by their teachers for showing promise and commitment to further learning. Lessons take place at the 4 District Middle Schools. District instruments are used during the school year and Zeswitz Music Store provides them over the summer, in-kind. Two Spanish-speaking parent liaisons are employed to overcome language barriers with parents, thus enhancing a student’s support at home. Student progress will be measured on standards adapted from MENC, in the categories of technique and musicianship.
Reading Orchestra Zone
A Critical Issue
In October 2008, the Reading Symphony Orchestra presented a proposal to the School Board of the Reading School District for launching an after-school program called, Orchestra Zone, to offer free music lessons to children of the inner-city district, which leads the state in poverty ranking (29% of all families,) low achievement levels and a highly diverse population (41.5% of families speak Spanish at home.) The district music program is hampered by a highly mobile student base as well as language barriers, a government mandated emphasis on standardized testing that restricts ensemble rehearsing and staffing obstacles that limit individual instrumental lessons. The result is a high school level orchestra that retains less than 60 students (only 10%) of those who first started on instruments in elementary school (over 650.)
According to a study by the Arts Education Partnership and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, the benefits of instrumental studies are well proven in developing reading and language skills, math skills, thinking skills, social skills, motivation to learn, and a positive school environment. In addition, students who study at least 4 years of music score nearly 100 points higher on their combined SAT Math and Verbal scores, than students who do not consistently participate in some form of artistic study.
A Collaborative Solution
The RSO proposed to deliver individualized lessons on a weekly basis, year-round, to worthy students that have been first recommended by their 5th grade music teachers for showing promise and commitment to further learning. The district responded positively to the proposal and approved funding to help launch the program in its first year. Two Spanish-speaking parent liaisons were employed to overcome language barriers with parents, thus enhancing a student’s support at home. Also, three District teachers were hired for instrumental instruction in the specialized areas of brass, woodwind, and strings.
Besides free lessons, students were also given the opportunity, along with their parents, to attend the RSO’s performance of The Nutcracker. They also toured the Sovereign Performing Arts Center and watched a Saturday afternoon rehearsal of the RSO. While there, they interacted with our musicians and Maestro Constantine, and got to feel what it was like to stand at the conductor’s podium. At the completion of the school year, they performed in recital on the same stage with our Concertmaster, Christopher Collins Lee and our pianist, Rebecca Gass-Butler.
Approximately 18 of the original 25 students, then in sixth grade, made it to all-city middle school orchestra. Two of those tried for and made it into the RSO’s Junior String Orchestra this Fall. Now a new group of 25 fifth graders has joined the original group in beginning their weekly lessons and all are progressing nicely.
Ongoing funding needs will increase each year as a new 5th grade class is added until the students reach high school level. Donations garnered through the EITC Program will pay instructor and parent liaison salaries. In addition, it will help to provide for music book supplies and instrument rentals when needed.