Youth music program pairs students with professionals

Dayton students learn music from the pros and get chance to perform

How To Go

What: Q the Music Concert featuring third-graders from Ruskin PreK-8 School

When: 4 p.m. Friday, May 17

Where: 407 Ambrose Ave., Dayton

Admission: Free. No reservations are necessary.

How To Go

What: Midwest Strings Seminario Performance featuring students from Dayton's Q the Music, My Cincinnati, COR Project in Cincinnati and YOURS in Chicago.

When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday, May 18

Where: Stivers School for the Arts, 1313 E. Fifth St., Dayton

Admission: Free. No reservations are necessary.

For more information on Q the Arts: Contact Gloria Pugh at or (937) 224-3521, ext. 1118

Nine-year-old Honesty Garcia never stops smiling when she talks about her viola — even after a long day at school and an hour-and-a-half rehearsal.

“I like how it sounds,” she said. “It’s fun to play, and I keep coming because I don’t want to give up in the middle.”

Honesty is one of 24 third-graders at Ruskin Elementary School in Dayton who’ve been given an opportunity to participate in a innovative pilot project that allows her to study music with top-notch professionals five days a week and to perform publicly with her classmates. The new program incorporates character-building elements as well.

Participants perform regularly throughout the year — including a stint at the Schuster Center — and they have had the chance to attend Dayton Philharmonic family concerts and “The Nutcracker” ballet for free.

The culmination of a year’s worth of hard work — and lots of fun, if you ask the kids — will be on public view at two upcoming concerts — on Friday, May 17, at Ruskin Elementary and on Saturday, May 18, at Stivers School for the Arts. The Saturday concert comes at the end of a day-long workshop for students and teachers from three other regional programs hosted by “Q the Music.”

How program started

The after-school initiative, inspired by Venezuela’s groundbreaking program known as El Sistema, was brought to town by the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance and its education director, Gloria Pugh. Funding has come from a combination of private donors and foundations.

“For many years, as Dayton Public School music programs were being cut, I’ve wanted to be able to offer some after-school experiences to give children access to learning to play instruments,” Pugh said. “When I learned about the El Sistema program, I was struck by the fact that it wasn’t just an instrumental program, but also a program to help build core values — such as teamwork and responsibility.”

In September, “Q the Music” was offered to third-graders at Ruskin free of charge. Students who agreed to participate were each given a string instrument — violin, cello or viola — and expected to attend daily after-school sessions for the entire school year. Each afternoon was broken down into three segments — academic tutoring, musicianship skills and group instrumental instruction.

Collaborating on the project are the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, East End Community Center and its Miracle Makers tutoring program, as well as Ruskin Elementary. The project takes the cooperation of classroom teachers as well as committed volunteers from the Dayton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and the Dayton Philharmonic Volunteer Association. Sharon Gratto, chairwoman of the music department at the University of Dayton, teaches musicianship, which helps kids learn general music skills from drumming to singing.

Why third grade?

“We decided to start at third grade because with string instruments, the younger you start the better,” Pugh said.

The plan is to expand the program next year so this year’s class can continue to study and a new crop of third-graders can begin. The hope is to grow the program through the eighth grade.

Pugh says she finds herself tearing up as she watches the children perform and model the important values that are being stressed.

The parents are just as delighted.

“It’s amazing,” Scott Ayers said.

Ayers said his 8-year-old daughter, Destiny, has learned to read music and now goes around the house singing.

“Music is a universal language and it’s taught her discipline. On Parent Night, she taught us how to play,” he said.

Teachers who love kids

When it was time to select instructors, Pugh said she looked for faculty who “had a heart for this kind of work.”

“It’s not all about the music,” she said. “We wanted teachers who really care about kids and want to make life better for them.”

Those selected were violist Leslie Dragan and cellist Nadine Monchecourt, both members of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra. Violinist Felipe Morales-Torres is the third member of the teaching trio. All live in Cincinnati.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Morales-Torres was conducting the after-school orchestra.

“That was awesome,” he told the kids near the end of the hour-long session. “I want you to listen to each other so that you’re playing exactly the same length at exactly the same time — which is my tempo.”

The children — even after a school day that began at 7:30 a.m. — were all sitting tall in their seats and paying close attention.

Dragan — sitting alongside the students and playing with them — says she thinks the new program is not only introducing the children to the arts, but is helping them to build a sense of community.

“Music teaches so many wonderful character-building principles like discipline and citizenship and self-esteem,” she explained. “We really go hard at the teamwork. We want the kids to know that if they aren’t doing what they need to do, then we won’t be successful. “

Dragan said she’s also learned a lot about herself this year and learned to appreciate her own upbringing.

“I feel like I can help these kids grow up and guide them to making good choices,” she adds.”We’ve been really blessed to have parents who realize this is a good thing and have been supportive.”

Dragan said the kids in the Ruskin orchestra are getting hooked on music.

“They look forward to their time with their instrument, to the lessons, and to being in an orchestra,” she said. “And we’re working with arrangements of melodies and pieces from classical repertoire— we’re not doing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ all day!”

Dragan says string instruments are challenging.

“We start them out very slowly-get them used to holding the violin, the viola, the cello,” she explained. “We taught them songs to help them learn the names of the strings and we started out first with pizzicato — plucking the strings. Then we taught them how to hold the bow and eventually how to make music with the bow.”

Dragan says once the buzz got started and the group performed its first school concert, other kids thought it was cool and wanted to join.

“Even if they never play an instrument again when they go off to college, they’ve developed a sense of pride that will spill over into their academics,” Dragan said. “They’ve learned how to work diligently and to see great results.”

She is amazed herself.

“They sound great!” she said. “I had to leave the room yesterday to find a missing shoulder rest, and they were playing a scale and I thought to myself:”Wow! That sounds like a really good scale!”

About the Author