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How the Louisville Orchestra Is Trying To Reach Younger Audiences

O'Neil Arnold

The Louisville Orchestra has added new elements to a 75-year-old program offered this year to thousands of Louisville area students.

Through the MakingMUSIC program, music director Teddy Abrams, 27, will visit schools, while playing and conducting concerts. He'll also oversee a new program, Landfill Orchestra, that uses recycled materials to build instruments.

“If we reach these kids effectively then we can build an audience that we know is going to care about us and love us and be a great steward for the future of orchestral music,” he said.

Not since Robert Whitney introduced MakingMUSIC in 1940 has a Louisville Orchestra conductor been so involved with helping lead the education initiative, said Deanna Hoying, director of education and community engagement for the 0rchestra.

MakingMUSIC will be guided by a music curriculum aligned to Kentucky's education standards. The program will reach some 25,000 students in the region, including those in surrounding counties and Catholic school students as well as students from every JCPS elementary school, said Hoying.

“It’s been a very long time since we’ve been able to get 100 percent,” she said.

Ensemble visits to fourth and fifth grade classrooms and concerts for students at the Brown Theatre are the core of the MakingMUSIC program, said Louisville Orchestra spokeswoman Heather O’Mara.

Hoying also developed a new school curriculum last summer, trying to make music education more accessible to the many schools that don’t have music teachers. She also looked at new national arts standards and the JCPS curriculum to consider how music can cross over with other subjects, such as math.

“A lot of fraction work is done in fourth grade in particular. So there’s a musical worksheet in making actual fractions sentences out of musical notes,” said Hoying.

Another task has students using their names to make a rhythm; educators can then string them together to create what Hoying calls a “name symphony.”

Abrams sees his role as the “mayor” of music and said many music directors don’t get involved in the communities where they work.

“Many of them don’t even live in the cities they conduct,” he said.

But Abrams, who said at 27 he's not too far removed from school himself, relishes in the opportunity to work with children.

“I have to be involved in the day to day activities including the education side of what we do,” he said.

Plus, he sees conducting and playing for children as a kind of challenge.

“The kids tell you right away whether they like something or not," he said. "It’s one of my favorite parts of kids concerts, but its also one of the scarier parts. If kids are not engaged they will just start talking and not pay attention and it’s obvious.”

What excites Abrams is also the chance to pilot the "Landfill Orchestra" modeled after the documentary "Landfill Harmonic," in which students use recycled materials and trash to build instruments.

This new program will be piloted this week at Hartstern Elementary School, where partner Fifth Third Bank will drop off recycled materials and Abrams will lead workshops in five different classes. Students from that same school will visit the Brown Theatre for a concert and be visited by an ensemble all in the same week.

“This is our future audience, and there are things that we can’t take for granted anymore about what our young audiences know,” said Hoying.

The MakingMUSIC program costs around $250,000 annually, and it gets financial support from from JCPS, the Gheens Foundation, and other community partners like Fifth Third Bank.