August 10, 2011 — When trombonist Nathan Dishman brings his instrument into area elementary schools to give a presentation, he knows the requests are inevitable.
"It always happens," he said. "They'll say 'Can you play some Lady Gaga?' And I'll say 'Sure.'"
Dishman, the principal trombonist with the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra, is one of many symphony performers who visit area public schools through "Preludes," an educational outreach program now observing its 10th anniversary.
Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rob Seal:
The Preludes program sends professional musicians from the symphony into elementary school classrooms to introduce students to their instruments and to encourage music participation. The musicians – who are also faculty members at the University of Virginia – teach students about their instruments' functions in an orchestra, explain how they produce sound and give demonstrations. Musicians in the program also teach master classes to older students in middle and high school music programs.
Since fall 2001, musicians have made 631 visits to area schools and presented to more than 39,000 students in every public school in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, as well as schools in Nelson, Fluvanna, Madison, Orange, Greene and Culpeper counties, according to Elizabeth Roberts, the symphony's outreach coordinator.
The visits are free to the schools, and often include exercises that conform to Virginia's Standards of Learning requirements, Roberts said. "We'll often customize a visit in response to what a teacher requests," she said.
Dishman, who like Roberts is also a member of the performance faculty in the McIntire Department of Music in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, estimates that he's reached more than 1,000 children in the three years he has been working with the program.
"I've presented to sections of two or three trombone players, or up to 115 kids in an elementary school," Dishman said. "It's encouraging to see the sense of wonder and the sense of imagination that the students have in wanting to see what the trombone can do."
One of the program's primary goals is to educate elementary school children who are on the cusp of deciding which instrument to play in middle school music programs – and who are about to choose whether to get involved with those programs at all, Roberts said.
"I would say the main goal is to give the kids enough information so that when they choose an instrument, they are making an educated choice," she said. "Many of them have never seen a musical instrument up close before we do these visits."
The master classes for older students could consist of anything from a musician working with a specific student to demonstrations and lessons for an entire ensemble or class, said Roberts, who is also the symphony's principal bassoonist and a former kindergarten teacher.
Aaron Hill, the principal oboe player in the symphony and a performance faculty member in the music department, said he traces his own interest in the instrument back to a similar visit when he was a child.
"Until someone showed me in middle school, I had no idea what an oboe was," he said. "Now it's what I do."
Hill said he sees the school visits as a way to broaden the audience for future symphony performances, an effect he also sees reflected in his own childhood experience.
"Because I was playing music so much, I begged my family to start going to more of the orchestra concerts where I grew up," he said. "I got my mom addicted, and then after I moved away, my mom and dad kept subscribing. That's a way that the orchestra gets to broaden its reach not to just the children, but to their families as well. Families are sort of the untapped demographic that we should be reaching more."
Pete Spaar, principal bassist, has been involved with the school visits for the entire decade the program has been in existence. He said getting an instrument into children's hands gives them a much more intimate appreciation for the art of making music, even if his instrument is much bigger than they are.
"The bass is a pretty impressive thing to see up close," Spaar said. "I love to give them each a chance to pull the bow across the string and feel the vibration through their entire bodies. With some of them, you can see their eyes light up."
The performers all said that such outreach is increasingly important when funding and time for music education in public schools are declining nationwide. Preludes is only one facet of the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra's outreach efforts. Such opportunities help students in their immediate musical pursuits, and can also pay off years down the road, Roberts said.
Many studies show clear links between learning an instrument and developing reading, writing, math and problem-solving skills, she said.
"The more contact the kids have with the arts and the more that they're participating in arts-related programs, the more positive impacts there are for them academically, socially and in sports," she said.