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Kalamazoo Kids in Tune

Kids in Tune is an after-school orchestra immersion program held at Kalamazoo’s Woods Lake Elementary School for first through fifth graders who are struggling in school. While learning to play musical instruments is the primary focus, students also receive academic help. Kids in Tune is a dynamic collaboration of Kalamazoo Public Schools, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and Communities in Schools of Kalamazoo.
Michigan Nightlight: What really differentiates this program?
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra Education Director Liz Youker: Two things: our access model and our curricular model.

Every child has an instrument to play. Taking ownership of a very fragile violin, or a shiny brass instrument is a tremendous learning tool and a great source of pride for our students. We were able to purchase instruments through several grants, and many more have been donated.  

Kalamazoo Public School district’s teachers generously share their classrooms with us and they also lend brass, wind and percussion instruments that they are not currently using. Last year, they were so generous -- they even provided a pair of timpani last year.
Their rate of progress is very quick and very rewarding for them. We turn the traditional youth orchestra model upside down.

Can you imagine how proud the child was who got to play them?

Kids in Tune is different from private music study because it removes the barriers that kids have little control over. Barriers that can keep them from the opportunity for sustained learning in the arts. Barriers like transportation, funding, and equipment. Since we meet four days every week, they have constant learning and support for practice. Their rate of progress is very quick and very rewarding for them. We turn the traditional youth orchestra model upside down.
These kids are not simply learning to play pieces like “Hot Cross Buns” as a group. Our students are members of an orchestra from day one. The parts are created for different ability levels to make sure everyone has something to contribute to the piece. As soon as they can play a few notes, we jump right into big orchestral themes, like “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The musical environment is full and rewarding from the start -- even if a student has a very simple part of a piece, say, one or two notes, they get to participate and feel the power and joy of the music.
What are the keys to success for your program?
On an organizational level, partnership is key. In our case, it is much like a three-legged stool. Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and Kalamazoo Public Schools each provide an essential piece of the framework. Because we pool those resources and expertise, we can have far greater impact, and we can also assure the community that we are going about this in the most efficient way possible.
Through our partnership with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo we can identify students who need support in academics, behavior, or attendance at school and give those kids the first opportunity to sign up for the program. We work steadily through those challenges so that our students will gain confidence and pride. The students master new steps one by one while they learn to play their instrument, and that is so rewarding and exciting for them. But there is hard work involved, so on the service level, creating an environment of what we call “serious fun” is imperative.

For instance, at the beginning of the year we need to re-establish good posture and basic technique, so we play “the button game” in violin class. One student hides a tiny button under one of her fingers while she holds her bow properly, and another player gets to examine everyone to find the button as he checks to make sure everyone is making bending their knuckles correctly. They beg to play this game.
We also build in a lot of variety of breaks that involve stretching and breathing, or clapping patterns to wake up the senses.

What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
We are ready to move the program from pilot to permanent, and the challenge with that is to make a strong case for the impact of the program, so that we can ask the community to stand behind us for the long term. The more concrete information we have, the better we can illustrate the benefits of Kids in Tune to prospective families, potential funders, and the
It is great to see the kids develop identity around their instruments and the orchestra. I hear them saying statements like "Iím a violinist" or "Iím a cellist."
So, while we are lucky to have a lot of great evaluation built in through the partnership with Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, we look forward to developing a tailored, comprehensive evaluation plan in the coming year – a plan to build on the good information we already have. For instance, our students are attending school more days than their peers and we want to document the impact of the program on student achievement and resilience.  
How does your program organize the resources needed to make programs happen?
It is through highly integrated community partnerships. Each of our three partners provides an essential element, not only for their help organizing things for afterschool programming, but making the sure kids’ basic needs are met. This happens in so many ways. Our partners help provide academic tutors and school supplies. Also shoes and clothing (for the kids who need it) and even weekend food packs, counseling and dental care.
We have a staff of youth development workers who accompany students through their after-school activities and sometimes assist in their classrooms supporting positive behavior and helping with student needs. Many of the youth development workers are musicians themselves.
Kalamazoo Public Schools provide essentials like space, lights and custodial duties and a great deal of advocacy by the superintendent himself. Before we began programming, we went to Chicago to examine a program that is similar to Kids in Tune. Dr. Michael Rice took the time to join us and we were all bowled over by the level of skill and focus we that saw in the elementary-aged students in that program.
After he heard an orchestra of fourth graders play Bach at the level of an outstanding high school orchestra, Dr. Rice he has been our strongest advocate. He attends our performances, and that is thrilling for the kids. The Kalamazoo Symphony is building our musical curriculum and enlisting area private teachers, music students, and others to help provide instruction.
Guest artists in town [to perform with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra] regularly stop in, so the students are getting used to the idea of world class performers, like clarinetist Anthony McGill, who performed at President Obama’s first inauguration along with Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax, and cellist Johannes Moser. He played both his acoustic and electric cello for us.  It has been a remarkable experience for the kids.

What are kids in your program most inspired by?
Our kids are inspired by the music they create, and their parents are delighted when they hear the result of weeks of hard work at a concert. It inspires everyone, really.
There’s no reason students should wait until they can play concertos to call themselves musicians. We create music together; we are musicians. It is great to see the kids develop identity around their instruments and the orchestra. I hear them saying statements like “I’m a violinist” or “I’m a cellist.”
Some ask me things like, “We’re playing Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. When are we going to play Symphony No. 2?”  This is just what we want to have happen. We started Kids in Tune with 35 students in 2011-2012 and by last year, we had 85 students. We anticipate having 90 or more this year.
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