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Around the World with Musical Links

Students in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, take part in Link Up, performing A Orquestra em Movimento (The Orchestra Moves)
with the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira last November at the Cidade das Artes. Photo by Cicero Rodrigues

Donald Rosenberg takes a melodic journey, further than anyone had thought probable, with the Link Up program.

Link Up is Carnegie Hall’s longest-running education program. It was created to connect classrooms and orchestras in the New York area, but the program—for third- through fifth-graders—has reached out in notable ways in the last decade. During the 2017–2018 season, its 33rd, Link Up is teaming with more than 100 orchestras in the United States, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Kenya, and Spain, presenting 340 concerts, and reaching 400,000 students and teachers worldwide.

“The goals and intentions have always been the same,” says Joanna Massey, director of learning and engagement programs at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI): “to introduce students to basic musical concepts and link up the curriculum in their classroom and the concert hall with an interactive concert experience.”

WMI supports professional development training for partner orchestras who in turn enable teachers to instruct the youngsters in recorder—and, in some locations, strings—and singing before they attend the concert, an event at which the students both perform from their seats and listen.

“Instead of just one-time concert experiences, the teachers are spending more than three months preparing students for this culminating experience,” says Hillarie O’Toole, manager of WMI’s learning and engagement programs. “That creates much deeper relations between the teachers and the orchestras.”

Four Link Up programs are available that focus on specific musical areas: The Orchestra Sings (melody), The Orchestra Moves (the movement of musical motifs), The Orchestra Rocks (rhythmic pulse), and The Orchestra Swings (the intersection of jazz and classical). The orchestras are responsible for funding the Link Up activities, with assistance from local schools, foundations, and cultural institutions, while Carnegie Hall provides a wealth of support including free copies of student and teacher guides, concert scripts, visuals, and annotated scores.

“We’re in our second season,” says David Carter, principal clarinet and education director of the Tulsa Symphony in Oklahoma. “It’s been really positive here. We launched with a pilot program last year with a few schools in two districts for 1,200 students. We wanted to go to 5,000. We’re now at 12,000 students. It far exceeded our expectations. We’re now in five districts.”

Students head into the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for their Link Up concert with the Oregon Symphony in May 2016.
Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony.

In Mississippi, Link Up has been adopted by four professional orchestras: the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra in Jackson, the Gulf Coast Symphony in Biloxi, the Meridian Symphony Orchestra, and the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra in Tupelo. The activities involve some 7,000 students per year, most from cities, but also from rural areas where music education is sparse.

Thanks to Link Up, the string program in Tupelo schools has tripled in size since the North Mississippi Symphony began offering the interactive concerts. Elaine Maisel, Link Up coordinator for the Mississippi Arts Commission and a bassoonist in the Mississippi Symphony, says the atmosphere at Link Up concerts is electrifying for musicians and students alike.

“It’s really energetic and boisterous, and most of the students have never seen a symphony orchestra before, so the kids often are so overwhelmed at being there and seeing an orchestra for the first time that it sometimes takes some prompting for them to remember they’re performing,” says Maisel. “The last piece of music gets them up on their feet and dancing. The orchestra members are thrilled to hear a thousand kids playing recorders at the same time.”

Students at a Link Up concert presented by the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra in 2016 wait excitedly for the event to begin. After three years of Link Up in Flagstaff, there is increased registration in instrumental music instruction in schools. Photo by JB DeWitt.  

Mary L. Nebel, chair for educational engagement and Link Up for the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra in Arizona, reports similar excitement. “It looks like chaos if you’re used to quiet concerts,” says Nebel, who plays cello in the orchestra. “But Carnegie Hall is not interested in having the old mold. There’s a time to be quiet and a time to participate. The kids cheer when things come on stage before the concert. They sing and play and clap and also sit quietly and listen and understand intuitively.”

The Flagstaff Symphony, near the Grand Canyon in Arizona, serves a diverse audience. The orchestra’s annual Link Up concert fills its 4,000-seat auditorium. Nebel says the intensive preparation in schools for the concert and the performance itself appear to have a marked impact on the students.

“Almost the very first question they ask in school is, ‘Are we going to Link Up this year?’” she says. “It has become an important thing in their lives. They’re learning songs in lunch lines or on bus trips. It really does change the students’ perception of the concert hall and concert experience, and they become more engaged in their musical learning. We know we’re seeing greater registration in instrumental music in schools after three years of Link Up.”

“The last piece of music gets them up on their feet and dancing. The orchestra members are thrilled to hear a thousand kids playing recorders at the same time.”

The first international Link Up program was offered in Oviedo, Spain, by the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias. The ensemble’s music director is Rossen Milanov, who leads Link Up concerts at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Ana Maria Mateo, the Spanish orchestra’s executive director, heard about Link Up through Milanov and traveled to Carnegie Hall to see a concert and meet with the staff from WMI.

The Link Up program, now in its 33rd year, is reaching students around the world. Here, the Orquesta Sinfonica del Principado de Asturias performs La Orquesta se Mueve, or The Orchestra Moves, in 2013 in Oviedo, Spain. Photo by Phil Bravo.  

“It was a time in which Link Up was also going to Canada and Japan,” says Mateo. “Guides were generously translated by Carnegie Hall into Spanish and there I took an active part, adapting, correcting, proposing. It was a pleasure to help in this way. Then the program was so successful here in Oviedo that some of our colleagues have implemented it in other Spanish orchestras.”

Link Up has also proved inspirational in Rio de Janeiro, where the Orquestra Sinfônica Brasileira received more than 100 applications from schools when the program was announced in February 2016. The orchestra chose 45 public and private schools in the region to participate and held two teacher workshops preceding the concerts, which have been rousing successes.

“The immediate impact can be measured in teachers’ testimonials of how their schools and parents got involved in the project,” says Anahi Ravagnani, educational manager of the orchestra’s foundation. “Their interest and support grew throughout the process, as well as their understanding of the program goals and its benefits for the children. Some teachers were also emphatic in pointing out how the kids have overcome technical challenges through hard work and dedication, which helped them to build a sense of confidence and self-esteem.

“The feeling of achievement was also noticed by the orchestra musicians, who received from the stage a large amount of energy, euphoria, and happiness.”

Donald Rosenberg’s original article originally appeared in Beyond the Stage: Stories from Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, published by Faircount Media Group.