‘The best day of their lives’: How the West Michigan Symphony Link Up program is changing the way students see music

The Frauenthal Center welcomes thousands of area students as part of the West Michigan Symphony’s Link Up concerts last Wednesday.

As the confetti begins to fly after the West Michigan Symphony wraps up its rendition of John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” the elementary school students packing the cavernous Frauenthal Center spring to their feet, cheering. They’re waving their hands, screaming joyfully, as T-shirts are launched from the stage. One child sitting in front of me lifts his recorder in victory, yelling, “this is the best day!”

This proclamation is one that reverberates numerous times throughout the Frauenthal last Wednesday, when a little more than 4,200 elementary school students from 55 West Michigan schoolsincluding 23 from Muskegon Countyhad the chance to play their recorders and sing alongside the West Michigan Symphony in three back-to-back concerts featuring music from Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Stravinski, and others. The culminating event to the year-long “Link Up” program provided by the Muskegon-based symphony, the concerts are emblematic of the students’ musical achievements and the overwhelmingly positive role music plays in the lives of children, educators explain.

“When they get to the Frauenthal, a lot of the students have never seen a live orchestra before, and they’re always so surprised that it’s live and they can hear it live,” says Deb Krispin, who teaches music education at Lakeside and Oakview Elementary Schools. “Most of the kids tell me it was the best day of their lives. Just saying that gives me chills.”

Students scream with joy at the end of the West Michigan Symphony’s Link Up concert at the Frauenthal Center last Wednesday.

In a nation that continues to cut music and arts education, musicians and symphony officials emphasize the Link Up concerts, and program, are simultaneously celebrations of the students and proof of the importance of incorporating music into schools. Since 2003, the West Michigan Symphony has partnered with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute to provide the Link Up program, a national initiative that pairs orchestras across the country with schools in their local communities.

Students in third through fifth grades learn how to play the recorder and read music as part of the program, which too ends up building self-esteem, introducing children to the area’s cultural organizations and institutions, and connecting the dots between music and the rest of a student’s academics, from math to history, educators and musicians explain.

“Not everybody wants to be a musician, but it’s introducing them to that possibility,” says Karen Vander Zanden, the director of education and corporate engagement at the West Michigan Symphony. “It teaches them confidence; it teaches them persistence and that hard work pays off; it teaches teamwork. It supports the English language arts and mathematics. It supports social studies when we talk about the history of music and composers.”

In the wake of cuts to music education across the country, Link Up is born

Sixteen years ago, in 2003, Carnegie Hall selected the West Michigan Symphony to be one of 10 orchestras throughout the country to launch the national Link Up program. West Michigan Symphony leaders and local educators flew to New York City to be trained in the programwhich aims to support music education in the wake of continued cuts to the arts throughout the country’s schools.

Now, Link Up has grown to include more than 100 orchestras around the world, and, locally, it has reached some 50,000 students.

“To date, we are the only orchestra that’s done it straight since that time,” Vander Zanden says. “It’s such an impactful program.”

Last week’s Link Up concert.

Currently, in five West Michigan countiesMuskegon, Kent, Newaygo, Oceana, and Ottawaboth public and private school educators train with the symphony to provide the Link Up program. Throughout the school year, the educators teach students to play the recorder, about the various musical instruments in an orchestra, music history, and more.

“What’s been most exciting for me as a music educator is we’re getting kids to read music and play an instrumentthere’s so much research that shows what happens to a child’s brain when they’re learning music; it’s like learning another language,” says Krispin, a music educator for 22 years who helped to launch the Link Up program in 2003.

Additionally, as part of the West Michigan Symphony’s Music Mentor Program, musicians go into area classrooms prior to the Link Up concerts and spend time with the students in an effort to prepare them for their Frauenthal debut, as well as to teach them about orchestras and their lives as musicians.

“What I like about [Link Up] is it’s available to schools that don’t have a music program; a lot of schools have lost music over the last decade, so I’ll be in schools where the [physical education] teacher is the music teacher,” says Arturo Ziraldo, the principal violist with the West Michigan Symphony who teaches in area schools as part of the Link Up program. “The PE teacher did training with us, even though they’re not musiciansbut they do it because they think it matters. It gives the students access to music education and going to a concert.”

That access is no small thing: studies consistently show music education is tied to enhanced performance in school. Which makes sense: in addition to music being connected to brain development, it includes everything from a focus on mathlearning and playing instruments involves fractions and ratiosto endless opportunities to engage with our own history and other cultures.

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“Music increases academic performance elsewhere,” says Ziraldo, who, in addition to being a professional musician in Michigan, has played with one of the best European orchestras, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Switzerland. “Cutting music is a lot like cutting out recess. If you take recess away from students, you’ll see a decline in their performance in general. The fact is their lives will be worse; their learning will be worse. While some may excel, the vast majority will suffer. The same thing happens with music.”

But it’s not just that academics are impacted that provides the impetus for music education, and the musician notes music plays a crucial role in a more fulfilling life.

“If I have a student come to me that wants to learn the violin, they come with excitement and they go at the lessons with joy,” Ziraldo says. “But, inevitably, the students comes up against things they cannot accomplish easily, that they don’t innately understand, and they become frustrated. They either want to stop altogether or choose a path of least resistance, such as playing much they already know. With good teaching, coaching and parenting, eventually that barrier is crossed and levels of self-confidence, curiosity and a willingness to work for delayed gratification and larger rewards is built. Over time, I’ve seen many music students become a vastly more competent and confident person in their entire life as a direct result of their music study.”

The power of a concert

For many of the children involved in Link Up, the final performances are the first time they’ve been inside the Frauenthalor even to downtown Muskegon.

“Sometimes, this is the only live concert the kids will experience,” Vander Zanden says. “My feeling has always been, let’s put the musicians in tuxedos and give the kids the full orchestra experience. This gives them the opportunity to see how thrilling live music is. They’re able to play the recorder with the full orchestra; that leaves a lasting impression on them.”

Last Wednesday’s concerts were interactive events that not only featured the performances themselves but lessons tying together what the students have learned throughout the year, including information about composers, musical history, and instruments. Plus, there was the much-loved confetti and T-shirt giveaways at the end of the concert, both of which landed quite the reception from students.

“The concerts grab the kids,” Krispin says. “The conductors are talking with the kids; it’s so fun for them. They feel it’s a part of them; they have a sense of belonging.”

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The students themselves agree, and a number of fourth grade students from Lakeside Elementary repeatedly describe the concert as “really exciting.”

They too explain the concert is representative of a big shift for themselves as musicians: the students we interviewed say they’ve gone from never having picked up an instrument to wanting to play in band when they’re in middle and high school.

“It’s fun because we like to play the recorder a lot, and we learn new notes,” says Jamarius Ervin, a fourth grade student at Lakeside.

And while it can be difficult“Old McDonald is the most challenging with the high c and high d notes,” fellow fourth grader Aliyah Strother saysthe students agree it’s worth it.

“It changes the way we hear songs now,” Layla Cruz, also a fourth grade student at Lakeside, says. “I love it.”

Story and photos by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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