Kids’ Orchestra Executive Director Jody Hanet is passionate about the importance of music in the lives of all children.
To stress the point, she often says, “inclusion is always the mission.”
Baton Rouge-based Kids’ Orchestra, a privately funded nonprofit, is one of the largest elementary-age, after-school music programs in the United States. In its fifth year, the program provides 800 kindergartners through fifth-graders the opportunity to study an array of instruments, sing in a choir and perform in an orchestra.
“We’re all by ourselves; we’ve done all this on our own,” Hanet said.
The mission of Kids’ Orchestra is to bring together children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, using music as an outlet to develop skills and foster teamwork.
Originally, founder Nanette Noland, CEO of the Powell Group, created Kids’ Orchestra as a way to teach music to children from low-income communities. It was later expanded to include all children when the concept was brought to East Baton Rouge Parish and Hanet became involved.
“Our children go to public schools, they go to private schools and they go to charter schools,” Hanet said. “How about just bringing all of our children together?”
Three years ago, as school music programs around the country faced budget cuts and closure, Hanet was asked to grow and strengthen the program. By going around Baton Rouge elementary schools and speaking to teachers and students, Hanet was able to expand the program from 50 students in a couple schools to 800 in 24 schools.
Hanet said Kids’ Orchestra could be in more schools if there was more funding. The program provides the teachers, instruments, transportation and food for each child.
“Kids want to be in Kids’ Orchestra, and parents want their kids in Kids’ Orchestra,” Hanet said. “We actually have a waiting list now. We had to stop at 800 because we have to get more funding. It costs about $1,000 per child.”
Hanet said the rapid loss of elementary school music programs in Louisiana is an enormous problem, and Kids’ Orchestra attempts to ease the situation in the Baton Rouge area. Hanet believes the power of music and education cannot be underestimated.
“A lot of these children are not getting the educational opportunities that they should, and Kids’ Orchestra provides that,” Hanet said. “There’s a big correlation between high brain function and those who study music. We’re equipping them for the future by teaching them to play an instrument. We’re not trying to create 800 professional musicians, we’re trying to create great citizens.”
Most of the teachers at Kids’ Orchestra are music doctoral students at LSU.
Sam Trevathan, Kids’ Orchestra education and curriculum specialist, is a doctoral percussion student at LSU, and has taught percussion to hundreds of children in the program.
Since Kids’ Orchestra is an after-school program, Trevathan said he and his fellow teachers always began each lesson with a snack, then homework, before the children touch an instrument. It’s the mentoring part of the program.
“We have a moment to actually talk to the kids during snack time to see how their day was and kind of get a feel for what’s going on in school,” Trevathan said. “We get to know the kids on an interesting personal level after school.”
It’s not easy teaching music to young children. Sometimes Trevathan catches the students on days when they are exhausted from school while on other days they are excited and filled with energy.
Despite the difficulties and challenges, Trevathan said there is nothing more rewarding than sharing music with children.
He said watching the process of his students learning music remains one of the greatest experiences of his life.
“It’s one of those indescribable feelings,” Trevathan said. “When you see a kid smile when they finally can accomplish something they didn’t think they could before and you witness that in their performance, words can’t really describe it. That’s where the performance actually tells you everything that you can’t use your own words for.”
The best of his experiences, Trevathan said, was witnessing the growth of one particular student from Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School who other teachers deemed difficult. The student struggled with socialization and communication and rarely kept still.
The student also had a number of learning disabilities, and still does, but Trevathan saw a noticeable change during music lessons.
Watching the growth of this student, who has since graduated from the program, proved to Trevathan the worth of Kids’ Orchestra.
“He came into his own in our classroom and was able to communicate ideas not only to us, but to his fellow classmates, and he was able to speak more clearly. He became quite an enthusiastic little drummer as well.”
The Kids’ Orchestra Spring 2016 Honors Orchestra Concert is May 7 at McKinley Middle Academic Magnet School.