Pandemic Downtime Has Strengthened the Resolve of Orchestras to Reach Children

Wherever orchestras and institutions have expanded their offerings for children during the pandemic, the impact has been stunning.

By Laurence Vittes | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Though orchestras have always had an interest in reaching out to children, the decades-long emergence of orchestras as central beacons of music education in their communities has been sharply accelerated by the pandemic. Within the orchestral music community, the needs of children have become a cultural imperative alongside the art itself, and with that status has come new responsibilities regarding access and equity, and a widening of its musical lens. This is all in line with the National Endowment for the Arts’ vision of cultural service, as Ann Meier Baker, its director of music and opera, tells me: “Each orchestra serves its community in unique ways as it strives to meet its specific community’s unmet needs.”

Wherever orchestras and institutions have expanded their offerings for children during the pandemic, the impact has been stunning. Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute pivoted its programming to a digital format, and since early March 2020 has tallied 3.8 million views of its online curriculum and family resources, and 4.5 million video views on Carnegie Hall’s YouTube and Vimeo channels. More than 4,000 teachers nationwide are using its digital Musical Explorers program or are participating in a new Music Educators Facebook group. The Institute’s programming boasts almost 100 percent attendance rates for teens, from the six continents and 15 countries where it is offered. No wonder that NEA grantees, Baker tells me, “are reporting a huge increase in the reach of their education programs.”

Joan Katz Napoli, the Cleveland Orchestra’s senior director of education and community programs, expresses a common feeling throughout the industry when she tells me, “the pandemic compelled us to try new ways of engaging people with music. It also compelled us to look differently at ourselves, our organization, our community, and our industry. Advocacy for school music programs and teachers and support of community music programs will need to ramp up,” she adds. “If they go away, it will take years to recover. Several of our programs take place where there are inequities in access to technology, healthcare, food, housing, and jobs. But when there was music, spirits soared.”

The Cleveland Orchestra addresses the importance of making music with its new 16-part Choose Your Instrument series, featuring orchestra musicians who provide an up-close-and-personal look at their instruments, as well as tips and encouragement for students starting on their musical journeys in school orchestra and band. The program was developed in response to requests from school music teachers and parents.


The San Francisco Symphony’s music-education programs adapted during the pandemic to online learning. Its Adventures in Music program serves every student in grades 1–5 in the San Francisco Unified School District, its Music and Mentors serves grades 6–12, and 20 mentors are active in 22 band and orchestra programs at 15 San Francisco public middle schools and high schools, coaching hundreds of music students online weekly.

Fortunately, it looks as though funding for public-school music programs will see at least a short-term benefit from pandemic spending. California, for example, just announced an enormous budget surplus at the state level. Mark Slavkin, director of education at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, says that “districts around California will have more money next year than could possibly be spent. The situation varies from state to state, although all states will enjoy an infusion of one-time federal money for schools to respond to the pandemic.” In general, Slavkin has not heard of large-scale cuts to arts programs around the country, although he assumes “there are isolated examples. In California, our fear that arts teachers would be cut in large numbers during the pandemic did not materialize.”

But introducing music into a student’s life and cultivating its development isn’t just about funding—it also takes support. Andreas Delfs, the new music director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, a longtime fierce advocate of music in the schools and of making music at home, has a dream “that musicians in orchestras everywhere will take more of an attitude like the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and similar institutions. That means donating time and energy to children with musical talent but in need of mentoring. There are lots of people who are musical and want to make music but will never have the opportunity. It’s not just about money,” Delfs emphasizes, “it’s about changing minds so that there will be more recognition of the elementary value of the arts in our education departments.”

Though orchestra and related organizations may have always placed high value on their educational components, the time provided by the pandemic has contributed, in some cases, to a change in thinking about how and why each program works the way it does. “It’s in the DNA of the performing arts and performing-arts organizations to drive toward a deliverable,” says Leslie Wu Foley, director of education and community engagement for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “It’s the season announcement or the downbeat or the curtain rising—we’re very product-focused. So this year has given us that rare opportunity as an organization and as individuals for a little bit of self-reflection. It’s very rare. We have confronted big questions, and as we’re slowly reentering the world post-COVID, I hope we maintain that level of awareness and intentionality by keeping those big questions right in front of us, at the center of what we do. I know I’m biased,” Foley says, “but I believe that engaging with children through music is also at the center of what we do.”


Like the other organizations, the BSO learned the value of technology in reaching an audience. “For a long time, people said—and it’s true—that there’s nothing that replaces a live performance experience,” says Foley. “But I think it’s not an either-or, as it sometimes has been considered—either live or nothing. I think that this year has proven that there is a use for producing online content and reaching people that way as well as returning to live music.”

But of course, fundamental in this effort to engage children is the need to reach all children equitably. This naturally leads to discussions of the role orchestras can play in promoting social justice. Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the Saint Louis Symphony, tells me that “the SLSO remains committed to listen with compassion, to educate ourselves, and to create safe and equitable spaces. Our support of music educators is the backbone of what our education team does. We are honored to be able to support them and partner with them to ignite their students’ passion for music. As a community-focused organization, we use our tool—the power of music—as a vehicle to create the change we believe is essential to ensure a more just society. We provide teachers with resources that connect to or provide an introduction for having conversations about social justice.”

This year the SLSO quadrupled the scope of its longterm investment in its SLSO Peer to Peer program, a mentorship initiative launched to address the pervasive lack of diversity in professional and youth orchestras. The program engages SLSO musicians, St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra musicians, and young musicians of color in small groups for weekly free learning sessions. The program, which grew to 16 students this year, helps the young musicians broaden their skills with the end goal of preparing for auditions in the youth orchestra or other community music ensembles.


Programs that address representation gaps help provide important role models for students, who in turn grow up to reinvest in such vital efforts. For example, in 2019 the Detroit Symphony hired Damien Crutcher to be the managing director of its new Detroit Harmony program, which is a developing “systemic approach to ensuring musical instruments and instruction are made available for all Detroit K–12 students.” Crutcher’s life was “turned upside down” when he played in the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra conducted by Joseph Strickland and Leslie Dunner, who was the assistant conductor at the DSO. “Wow!” Crutcher says, “I thought, so here I am, a Black student playing French horn. I see these Black conductors. So guess what mattered in my life? I did a masters in conducting at the University of Michigan. I saw those two as something I could be and I could attain.”

Like many others, the Cleveland Orchestra is deeply engaged in examining issues of racial equity, access, diversity, and inclusion across its internal operations; artistic, educational, and community programs; and beyond. Joan Katz Napoli admits that, “Certainly the events of 2020 accelerated this long overdue work. Staff, orchestra musicians, and trustees are taking part in trainings, discussion groups, longterm planning, and more. This work is ongoing and already having an impact.”

Cleveland Orchestra programs influenced by this work include some live, in-person concert experiences, including performances of music by Latinx and Black composers, including three new commissioned works for string quartet; a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month at the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center; and a special performance to kick off a #StopAsianHate event in Cleveland’s Asia Town.