Jim Jenkins

N.C. Symphony strikes a note for music education

N.C. Symphony players and students
N.C. Symphony players and students

We will return to this statement momentarily, but for now let’s just say it: The North Carolina Symphony is the finest organization of its kind in America — not just for the skill of its musicians or the creativity of its programs, or its versatility. Rather, it rises above others because of a solemn commitment made in the 1940s to serve the state, from school houses to concert halls, and it keeps that promise to this day.

Last week, the symphony’s donors, specifically the Friends of Note, gathered in the Angus Barn Pavilion to support the symphony’s music education program, which in this and other years will serve tens of thousands of fourth- and fifth-graders across North Carolina. Serving means schools will hear from musicians in concert from the symphony, including schools where access to the arts is limited. It means that students, some of them in school orchestras themselves, will hear and speak with and perhaps even play an instrument handed over by a symphony player.

A band to which I belong, Rode Hard the band, a group more inclined toward Scruggs than Strauss, was asked to play a surprise set at the event. We were mercifully brief no doubt in the view of those present. They were there, after all, to do business, to carry on that most noble of the symphony’s missions.

We heard symphony supporters talking about “making a difference” to school kids in those elementary grades. Thanks to attending a grade-school concert at Cary High School the previous night — a young guy who calls me Pops plays violin at Cary Elementary — I can testify that the symphony’s support, and that of the Wake County Public Schools, often makes all the difference.

On Monday night, as the kids in three different groups took the stage, they tentatively launched into the pieces they practiced, gave it their all with their feet tapping, and in between, gallant teachers made the pitch for money for arts in public schools, money that is guaranteed by state lawmakers for another year though not thereafter. Teachers made it clear how important “thereafter” is. Lawmakers who don’t heed the call will come to know the force of parents who see the violin taken from their kid’s hands.

Those kids — of all backgrounds — filled that auditorium with smiles.

The symphony does its part, for certain. I saw them first in the fourth grade in Raleigh, and thereafter in concert. Cousins of my age, though they lived in small towns from the coast to the hills, saw the same shows, talked to the same musicians who boarded the buses to fulfill the mission promised from the symphony’s beginning (with volunteers) in 1932, one proudly kept after the orchestra got continuous state funding in the 1940s. It was the first state-sponsored symphony in the country.

It’s one thing to campaign for funding (it came in something called the “horn tootin’ bill”) based on a commitment to public service, but another to stand behind it and take the orchestra all over the state for 80 years. Making the promise is only the first step. Keeping it is what matters.

And so, in the next year, they’ll be off, to the cities they know and the towns they don’t, to visit schools with well-equipped orchestras and those with bare bones, to meet kids who recognize the music they’re playing and others who’ve never heard a classical note. They’re home, the players, and then they’re off again. Because that was the promise. Because that’s what makes a difference to those kids on the stage in Cary, or Shelby, or Elizabeth City. All the difference.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com