Pass It On: A Q&A about Berkeley Symphony Orchestra's Music Education Program (Berkeley, California)

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              Ming Luke conducting a group of children<br />

Berkeley Symphony Orchestra's Ming Luke conducting the I'm a Performer concert at a local school.

Each year, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra works with approximately 4,500 public school students through its Music Education Program. According to Education Director Ming Luke, the mission of program -- a collaboration with the Berkeley (California) School District -- "is for every single student in the district, not just the best ones, but for every single one of them to have a minimum level of music education and experience."  In this interview, also featured in NEA Arts 2008, Vol. 4, Luke spoke with the NEA about this catalytic partnership between the orchestra and the Berkeley community.

NEA: What's the history and mission of Berkeley Symphony?

MING LUKE: The Berkeley Symphony is, I believe, 30 years old this year. And Kent Nagano has been the music director for the last 25 years. It's a pretty unique orchestra.  Berkeley Symphony Orchestra performs symphonic music that engages the intellect, sparks the curiosity, and delights the spirit of our unique community. My favorite description of [our mission] from Nagano is that it's a grand experimentation. He's been exploring some of the boundaries of classical music as well as classical music concert style for the last 25 years. I think the role of the Berkeley Symphony is to experiment and really just try new things and explore new ways not only of presenting music [but of] supporting new music.

NEA: What's an example of the Berkeley Symphony's unique programming?

Ming Luke: One of our programs is [called] Under Construction. For young composers [who want to] perform with a major orchestra, it's incredibly expensive for them to try to put something together. And orchestras oftentimes want to play works that are more established. [The series] this year has four emerging composers. . . .The first time we run through the music it's rehearsed in front of the audience. And the very next time that we have an Under Construction Series Concert, the same music is performed, and the audience gets to hear how the music has changed based on feedback not only from the orchestra musicians but the audience members too. Audience members have a chance to actually ask not only the composer about the genesis of the work, but also the musicians in terms of what it's like to play [the work], why this piece is more difficult or more fun to play than others. It's an interesting experience for all the people involved because the orchestra musicians get direct access to the composer . . .[and] the composer gets a lot of feedback not only from the conductor but also the audience members.

NEA: So basically you're taking the traditional idea of the orchestra experience where it's somewhat passive for the audience and exploring that as well as exploring new music and new ways of presenting. What about the Music Education Program?

LUKE: From the very outset of the program, the idea was that this education program should be in a true collaborative fashion with the school district. [We wanted to look at] what the district music teacher's needs are and create programs that are beneficial for all of them, not just impose [a curriculum] on a district . . . We're at 11 elementary schools every single year with a program that is tailored to each grade's curriculum.

NEA: How many schools initially took part in the program?

LUKE: It started off with four schools. There are 11 elementary schools in Berkeley, and we used to rotate between them, and so a school would be seen every third year or so. When I started with the Berkeley Symphony, we met with kids, and I would, of course, ask them, "How many of you remember the last time we were at the program?" It was surprising to see that barely a tenth of them would actually raise their hands. Three years [is a long time] when you're an elementary school kid. And now the program meets with every single kid from year to year.

NEA: How is the program structured?

LUKE: The primary focus for the education program is that it's not hit-and-run music education. The goal of the education program is to have as many interactions with the students over the course of any entire year as possible. The three major components of the program are musician visits and Meet the Symphony concerts [in the fall], and I'm a Performer rehearsals and concerts in the spring . . . . The music teacher collaborates with the visiting musicians, as well as the classroom teachers, to figure out what would be the best topic for the students to work with . . . And so, for instance, a fourth-grade string teacher might ask our musicians to have a specific lesson on bow hold as well as give a presentation on what it's like to be a musician . . . . Ideally if the classroom teacher has been using the curricula and the musicians have been talking about the program, [the students] get to a point where [the Meet the Symphony concert] is a live demonstration of the things that they've been hearing. . . . The last major component is the I'm a Performer concerts. This is where every single student in the Berkeley elementary schools performs with the symphony.

NEA: How do the kids react to the Music Education Program?

LUKE: [T]he kids love it. The whole thing is that kids love music. It's just like when they're young, they can learn any language. And when they're young they also can listen to any sort of music, even the most obscure 20th-century music. The adults around set the context for whether they enjoy [the music, and] it's something that they want to hear again. Too many times you see education programs where kids are told to . . . just sit there and listen. And we know from studies that when you have kindergarten kids or younger, they literally can't sit still when they listen to music. We try to create an atmosphere where the music is fun, while being educational, and we incorporate as many different types of music as possible, from Mozart, Beethoven [to] Pops music, too.  To see their eyes being opened and the challenge that they have and the excitement that they have is infectious.

NEA: How important is NEA support to the program?

LUKE: To have support coming from all areas of the community is incredibly important to us, whether it's local, regional, or national, as well as various types of funding, individuals, foundations, government entities . . . . It not only provides legitimacy, but it also is symbolic of the way we're trying to structure the program, which is that all areas in the community have feedback and a stake in the program