Creating an Orchestra from Scratch

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When Barry Stern started teaching music at Louis D. Brandeis High School—a school of more than 2,500 students—the majority had never touched an instrument.
Today, Brandeis boasts not one, but three different orchestras. The school is home to well over 200 string players, and scores of others practice the flute, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone and percussion.

Before Stern’s arrival five years ago, music instruction at Brandeis consisted of history and theory taught by the book. Playing was not part of the curriculum.
But Stern, a classically trained violist, was convinced that if the children were to learn about music, the process had to be hands-on. So he went to the principal, Dr. Eloise Messineo, and asked for instruments. Within weeks, students were holding horns and brandishing bows. Two years later, they performed their first concert.

Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Messineo considers this a “tremendous” accomplishment.

“Barry took a pretty deplorable situation and he turned it around,” she said. “He’s taking kids who don’t have any training, and he teaches them how to read, play and love music.”

What they achieve, Stern says, is made possible by a principal who believes in arts education and is willing to spend money accordingly. It is also made possible through a unique artists-in-residence program founded by arts advocate Diane Volk, who sends professional musicians to Brandeis to provide hundreds of lessons.

The idea behind the program, according to its director, Paola Prestini, is that daily practice under expert guidance allows students to succeed.

“You don’t let them fail. If they don’t get it on the first try, they will on the 200th,” she said. “It’s all about saturation and a close partnership with a teacher.”

Not only do students learn from skilled musicians during the school day, they also get to listen to them at night. Stern organizes regular trips to concerts at Carnegie Hall or the New York Philharmonic, which the students attend on their own time.
As a result of these joint efforts, Stern now sees kids who didn’t know the difference between Bach and the Beatles fill their iPods with Beethoven and Vivaldi.

He wants students to really understand that music is more than just “little dots on paper,” a goal that some of them have already attained.

“The other day, they were playing the unaccompanied cello suites by Bach, and they were arguing about how it relates to the composer’s life,” Stern said. “I felt like I was back in music school.”

Even more gratifying, Stern added, is that attendance at music classes has shot up from around seven to an average of 45 students out of a class of 50. If he can get students to come to school and pick up an instrument, he just might get them to pick up a diploma, too.

The future of Stern’s music class is uncertain, though. The school, which has a large population of special-education and English-language students, has a history of low test scores and graduation rates. It will be closed and replaced with several smaller ones after its last students graduate in 2012.

When that time comes, Stern will leave with a heavy heart. “These kids are often told, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t’,” he said. “But I’ve watched them grow and progress and take pride in what they can do.”

Barry Stern
Music, Louis D. Brandeis High School

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