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Florida Orchestra to offer violin lessons for at-risk Tampa youth

Violinist and teaching artist Kristin Baird works with a child in the Florida Orchestra's "instrument petting zoo," a program the orchestra will repeat as part of its partnership with the arts education program, Prodigy. Courtesy of The Florida Orchestra.
Published May 17, 2018

TAMPA — The Florida Orchestra will begin tutoring at-risk children free of charge, thanks to a Hillsborough County grant.

The $80,000 grant to the University Area Community Development Corp. pays for six weeks of violin instruction at select recreation centers, from the second week of June through the third week of July. Tentative plans call for another class from late August until the end of September.

The partnership between the UACDC — through its after-school program, Prodigy — marks the first time orchestra musicians will formally teach students one-on-one. It's a part of the orchestra's pivot under the lead of music director Michael Francis to be more engaged in the community. In recent years, the orchestra has stepped out of concert halls and into places like hospitals, parks and Tampa International Airport.

The teaching program follows a trend that started in the mid 1970s in Venezuela with El Sistema, which has produced several top-tier musicians including Gustavo Dudamel, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"This is a program that will start small, and could potentially build into something very large," said Erin Horan, the orchestra's community engagement director.

Prodigy defines itself as a prevention program that exposes at-risk youth ages 5 to 18 to professionals in the visual and performing arts. Program leaders say progressing as artists helps them solve problems, manage their anger, set goals and communicate with others.

"We keep kids on the right path, so if some kids are getting in trouble or teetering on making bad decisions, we try to help them make better choices," Prodigy director Mike Trepper said.

Studies conducted since 2000 by the Arts Education Project, the Guggenheim Museum, the Rand Corp. and more have shown consistent links between arts education and academic performance. At Prodigy, more than 95 percent of kids enrolled have not had contact with law enforcement, the program claims; and of those who have, more than 89 percent have not reoffended.

Money, or lack of it, often stands in the way.

"The populations we work with are not traditionally going to the Straz Center or to the orchestra," Trepper said. "They just don't have the opportunity. So the goal is to bring the orchestra to them."

The $80,000 secured by UACDC allows the organization to hire Florida Orchestra violinists Linda Gaines, Cynthia Gregg and Oleg Geyer. Each will teach up to a dozen students in 90-minute classes over six weeks. Grant funds also cover a new part-time orchestra position, community engagement coordinator Michelle Painter, who started this week, as well as instruments and supplies.

"They will be good quality instruments for a beginner," Horan said.

The grant also calls for 75 hours of instruction in other areas, perhaps a choral program or learning to compose music.

Since Francis arrived in 2015, the orchestra has conducted workshops at the University of South Florida and played side-by-side concerts with youth and community orchestras across Florida. Violinist Kristin Baird was hired in January 2017 to work with orchestra directors in Pinellas County schools.

That program is getting another instructor soon; violist Kaitlin Springer starts in August. Both are funded through the Arts Referendum, which brings in more than $30 million annually through a property tax approved in 2004. Both instructors help teachers teach stringed instruments and fill in as orchestra musicians when needed. They do not work directly with students.

The success of El Sistema, which by 2015 had reached more than 700,000 students in 400 music centers around the world, has spawned dozens of variations. Those include the Atlanta Music Project, Baltimore's Orch Kids, and UpBeat NYC, an orchestra program for 8-year-olds and up in the South Bronx. Before joining the Florida Orchestra, Horan worked with a similar program in Alabama through the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

"It didn't stick with every kid," Horan said. "But the kids it stuck with, it really stuck with. They were in love with it, they were passionate about it. And that's what I could see happening with this."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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