Louisiana Kids Orchestra puts instruments in hands from all backgrounds

For Jody Hanet, there is only one way to describe having hundreds of kids from different backgrounds — white, black, affluent, poor — learning an orchestral instrument and becoming friends: Music to her ears.

In its third year, the Louisiana Kids Orchestra already involves 500 Baton Rouge children in kindergarten through fifth grade learning music and, organizers hope, a lot about life.

“The music acts as the vehicle to bring the children together, so that’s the commonality,” said Hanet, the orchestra’s executive director. “They’re not necessarily thinking about racial differences or gender differences. They’re thinking along the lines of music and instruments.”

Specifically, about violins, violas, cellos, flutes, clarinets, trumpets and various percussion instruments, as well as musical fundamentals. Hanet said the goal is to have 750 children involved next year, 1,000 the year after that, and for the program to spread across the state.

“We’re hoping that in two years or so Louisiana Youth Orchestra is not going to know what to do because their numbers (of applicants) are going to be so huge,” she said.

The Louisiana Youth Orchestra was formed in 1984, as an educational component of the Baton Rouge Symphony, according to the symphony’s website. It has about 180 musicians between the ages of 6 and 20 who are selected by competitive audition to play in three concerts.

The idea for the Kids Orchestra came from inspired timing.

On a Sunday morning, Baton Rouge businesswoman Nanette Noland heard her pastor, the Rev. Mark Holland at St. James Episcopal Church, challenge parishioners to foster relationships with people outside their race and socioeconomic group.

That night, she saw a news story about El Sistema, a musical program started in Venezuela for poor children, being brought to Los Angeles. In both places, it had a positive impact on the underprivileged.

Noland took it a step farther: Offer it to all children, both to teach music and cross boundaries. With several dozen children in 2011, the orchestra began, with weekly practices for students from four schools. Noland has provided funding and office space for the effort.

The growth came from aggressive marketing. Some schools, having heard about the orchestra, asked to be included. Hanet and Program Director Susannah Montandon went out and recruited children with what they call “instrument petting zoos,” allwoing children hands-on experience with an instrument.

“We got kids all excited about Kids Orchestra, and they went home and told their parents about it, and things went out of control,” Hanet said.

Practices take place after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Schools are linked to encourage a diverse mix in each group.

Capitol Elementary is host to students from Belfair and Melrose Elementary, Angles Academy hosts Bernard Terrace Elementary, The Dunham School hosts Wildwood Elementary, St. Luke’s Episcopal School hosts LaSalle Elementary, Brownfields Elementary hosts Redemptorist Elementary, Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School hosts the LSU Laboratory School and St. James Episcopal Day School hosts Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church Early Learning Academy and The Dufrocq School.

The orchestra provides transportation and healthy snacks for the children — who have a half hour to do homework, assisted by the music teachers — before the music lessons begins. Kindergarten and first-grade students learn musical fundamentals; older students learn instruments. From them are chosen two orchestras of 40 to 60 members, who have additional rehearsals.

Artistic Director Jovan Zivkovic directs the orchestras. “That is a very interesting experience for all of us,” he said. “None of them has played an instrument for longer than a few months, so just to figure out their way around the instrument is a challenge for them, but peer education, that’s what El Sistema actually established. In a western education system, you rely mainly on teachers to convey knowledge to students.

“However, peer education is equally important and gives great results — kids sitting next to each other and learning from each other, figuring out how to do things on their own. They achieved great results last semester. Playing in the final concert, both groups exceeded my expectations greatly.”

Louisiana Kids Orchestra has more than 300 instruments, which they allow students to take home to practice, and recently received a $6,500 grant from the Classics for Kids Foundation. A matching anonymous donation has enabled the orchestra to buy 16 violins, four violas, three cellos and four basses.

It costs $300 per semester to be in the orchestra, but any student receiving free or reduced-price lunch is not charged, and the vast majority of participants come from that group.

“Every child in Baton Rouge who wants to play an instrument, we want an instrument in their hand,” Hanet said.

The orchestra will hold a joint fundraiser with Manners of the Heart at 1 p.m. April 13 at the City Club. Cost is $100. Call (225) 922-4656 or email cmacha@kidsorchestra.org. The spring concert is at 4 p.m. May 10, at Christian Life Fellowship Church. The orchestra accepts monetary and instrument donations.