Debbie Durham: Victoria Symphony works closely with area schools

We are delighted to respond to the question posed by the Victoria Advocate Editorial Board in its Jan. 30 editorial encouraging the VISD Orchestra program. Near the end of the editorial, the question was asked of the Victoria Symphony: "Why wait? Perhaps it's time for the Victoria Symphony to work with VISD to help encourage students in the orchestra program. This would be a wonderful opportunity to show students the possibilities if they continue to work hard."

We are in complete agreement that the Victoria Symphony serves as an outstanding example of musical excellence to encourage area youth. To that end, the Victoria Symphony (VSO) Board of Directors created a dedicated staff position in 2007 to begin regular educational outreach to the 10-county area the VSO serves. In 2008, when VISD hired Jay Lester as the new fine arts director, the VSO worked directly with him and Kathy Murdock, the original orchestra teacher, for the initial parent meeting to begin an after-school string class for fourth-grade students. VSO put out a call to all season ticket holders requesting donations of used string instruments for the new VISD program. The first two years of weekly, after-school rehearsals were attended by the VSO staff until orchestra classes became a reality in all four middle schools in the fall of 2010. VSO staff has been present at every VISD Orchestra concert for the past 51/2 years, assisting with any and every task that was requested.

Each year, as educational outreach grew, the VSO Board responded by increasing its education budget to better serve local needs.

As VISD's orchestra began preparations to compete in UIL for the first time, VSO staff attended after-school rehearsals to support the fledgling program and has accompanied the orchestra to every UIL contest since that time to encourage both orchestra students and teachers alike.

Thanks to two extraordinarily generous and anonymous donors, VSO has offered free concert tickets to all VISD students and families for at least three concerts per season during the last five years. Thousands of students and their families have attended their first live Symphony concert because of this service.

Four years ago, a new education program was created for all orchestra students to encourage their commitment and enthusiasm to orchestra by creating connections with VSO professional musicians with meals, games, visiting and performing together. Perhaps the most unique and special sharing of talent involves Master Classes, which brings together VSO guest artists and VISD string students every year for the past five years. These guest artists are world-renowned, classically trained performers who are experts with their chosen instrument. Such an opportunity for young, beginning musicians is both rare and wonderful in our community.

The VISD orchestra has been invited and subsequently performed annually at the VSO's Downtown Rhythms concert each spring for the last four years; once, it was joined by several VSO string players.

When the Victoria Symphony League, the fundraising arm for the VSO, asked Mrs. Murdock what other ways we could help her growing program, she asked for and has received music books and/or string supplies for those VISD students/families who could not afford them every year for the past four years. This past year, the VSL produced "What is Orchestra?", a video created in collaboration with VISD, donating the DVDs for use in VISD elementary music classrooms to educate students as they choose their middle school fine arts elective. VSL served much like a booster club in the early years of orchestra activities and continues to volunteer, serving at concert receptions, assisting at solo/ensemble contests, pre-concert instrumental petting zoos and serving lunch to students at pre-UIL clinics.

VSO staff has met several times each semester with Kathy Murdock throughout the years of orchestra growth to provide encouragement and support. Just last month, VSO Maestro Darryl One visited all five VISD campuses where orchestra classes meet to talk to and hear feedback from string students about their experiences at VSO concerts.

And every single service provided by the VSO since 2008 has been free to VISD. It has been our joy to work closely with Kathy Murdock, Jay Lester, Mima Gonzales, Diane Boyett and now, the new Fine Arts Director Ken Peach as our sixth year of collaboration continues.

Years ago, the VSO board determined to find new ways for the symphony to become more relevant to our entire community. This is only one of those ways. As you can see, we have not waited to encourage both orchestra students and students of all ages to understand the joys of symphonic music. We look forward to a continued positive relationship with both VISD and the surrounding area school districts.

Debbie Durham is the education coordinator for the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.