A D.C. Youth Orchestra student practices his cello.

A D.C. Youth Orchestra student practices his cello.

Music education helps students with emotional development and fosters imagination and intellectual curiosity. But when school districts have to balance the budget, music programs are often the first to be cut.

As funding for instruments has slowed and fewer ensemble-based music programs are offered in middle and high schools, local arts organizations have stepped up.

The D.C. Youth Orchestra Program and DMV Percussion Academy are filling in the gaps and providing students at over 250 schools in the region with additional opportunities to make music.

Produced by Victoria Chamberlin


  • Elizabeth Schurgin Executive Director, D.C. Youth Orchestra Program; @DCYOPmusic
  • Don Johns Founder and Director, DMV Percussion Academy; @DMVpercussion
  • Kenneth Elpus Associate Professor and Coordinator of Music Education, University of Maryland College Park; @KennethElpus


  • 12:32:02

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Music education helps students with emotional development and fosters imagination and intellectual curiosity. But when school districts have to balance the budget, music programs are often the first to be cut. As funding for instruments has slowed and fewer ensemble-based music programs are offered in middle and high schools, local arts organizations have stepped up.

  • 12:32:23

    KOJO NNAMDIThe D.C. Youth Orchestra Program and DMV Percussion Academy are filling in the gaps and providing students at over 250 schools in the region with additional opportunities to make music. Joining us now is Kenneth Elpus. He is an assistant professor and coordinator of Music Education at the University of Maryland College Park. Ken Elpus joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:32:47

    KENNETH ELPUSThank you for having me.

  • 12:32:48

    NNAMDIWhy is music education important, to start with? What does it do for childhood development?

  • 12:32:53

    ELPUSI think music and the arts are an important part of being well-rounded, so much so that even the federal government in the current iteration of federal education law specifically enumerate music and the arts as part of the well-rounded education for students. We find that kids who take music understand their emotional, social and cultural world in unique ways, compared to kids who don’t.

  • 12:33:15

    NNAMDIWhat broad trends have you observed in the support and funding of music education, nationally?

  • 12:33:21

    ELPUSSo, what we see nationally is that there's inequality and inequity around music in schools. When you look just at music students, that is those who actually end up taking music in high school, the ensemble students, especially kids in bands and orchestras, tend to come from wealthier families, and they're much less likely to be students of color. As a whole, when you look, the music students are whiter and richer than the average American student. This isn't exactly the case for choir kids, who look like everybody, but it is a big sort of inequity issue that we have in American education.

  • 12:33:51

    NNAMDIKen Elpus, how has school choice and the emergence of more public charter schools affected music education in our region?

  • 12:33:59

    ELPUSI think this is a really important issue, because one thing that you see when you look nationally is that charter high schools are the least likely of any kind of school -- so traditional public high school, private school, religious schools -- to offer a broad and comprehensive-based arts education. And that could be due to a lot of reasons, but part of that could be because they're free of the restrictions that the states put on for required curricula. One of the things that may go in charter schools is that access to comprehensive music and arts education.

  • 12:34:27

    NNAMDIIs it an either/or scenario though, Ken? Does investing in arts education necessarily mean taking away resources from other curriculum for school administrators?

  • 12:34:36

    ELPUSI don't think that it does, but, of course, I'm biased, right. I was a school choir teacher myself. I continue to conduct a choir at the University of Maryland, in addition to doing my research. And I'm always interested in school administrators who can be creative about the ways that they fund their programs.

  • 12:34:52

    ELPUSOne thing that we do know is that music teachers, for example, are relatively inexpensive, because one single ensemble director can teach as many as 100 children at once, which does free up other areas of the school, where so many kids are being taught so efficiently.

  • 12:35:08

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Don Johns, who is the founder and director of DMV Percussion. Don Johns, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:35:15

    DON JOHNSThank you for having me.

  • 12:35:16

    NNAMDIYou founded DMV Percussion Academy to bring the percussive arts to students. Tell us about your organization.

  • 12:35:23

    JOHNSYes. Well, we started back in 2018 as a weeklong summer workshop, where I brought together some of the region's finest percussion performers and educators to work with students in grades six through 12, giving them a complete, comprehensive instruction with percussion in areas of drum set drum line, marimba, steel pans, timpani, percussion ensemble, you name it.

  • 12:35:49

    NNAMDIWhat is it about percussion instruments that gets students who otherwise would not be involved, what is it about percussion that gets them to participate in music?

  • 12:35:58

    JOHNSWhat I think is so amazing is that percussion is readily engaging. You can put sticks in a student's hand, you can give them a drum to strike, and immediately, they can be a part of a collective music experience. Now, of course, to be a master percussionist or a professional requires lots of training, as much as any other instrument. But percussion is a readily accessible and engaging instrument. So, students can immediately feel success, immediately feel part of something bigger than themselves, and immediately have an opportunity to cultivate confidence.

  • 12:36:27

    NNAMDIYeah, everybody likes to beat on something, for starters. (laugh)

  • 12:36:30

    JOHNSExactly. That's right. That's right.

  • 12:36:32

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Elizabeth Schurgin, executive director of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:36:39

    ELIZABETH SCHURGINThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:36:40

    NNAMDIYour program, the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program. has been part of the fabric of music education in this area for six decades. What is its mission?

  • 12:36:48

    SCHURGINOur mission is music for young people, achievement for life. and we have three primary goals. The first is to provide musical instruction and performance opportunities across Washington's full diversity. The second is to provide pre-professional performance opportunities on the national and international levels. And then the third -- much to what both Kenneth and Donny talked about, is to instill focus and discipline in our students. We like to say that we're creating the next generation of citizen musicians, and that the skills that they learn through our program, they can carry with them throughout the course of their lives.

  • 12:37:23

    NNAMDIHow many different schools are represented by the students in the program?

  • 12:37:27

    SCHURGINWe currently serve 250 different schools. Our age range is from four-and-a-half to 18. And of those 250 schools, we have 100 different zip codes represented. So, 65 percent of our students come from D.C., 30 percent from Maryland and 5 percent from Virginia.

  • 12:37:45

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Here is Lissa, in Washington, D.C. Lissa, could you please identify yourself completely?

  • 12:37:56

    LISSAYes. Hi, Kojo. Thank you. This is Lissa Rosenthal-Yoffe. I'm the executive director of the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative. And we work together with 120 cultural institutions, serving D.C. public and public charter schools, including the D.C.'s orchestra, to make sure that there's equitable access to arts and humanities opportunities. And these music programs are so vital. We advocate to make sure that there are fulltime arts educators in every D.C. public school. And, to this day, even in best of times, there still is not. So, these are very important programs to the collective impact of what we provide to our community.

  • 12:38:35

    LISSAAnd what I wanted to touch upon today is, in light of the unfolding situation with school closures and in response to coronavirus, the D.C. Collaborative, we're putting together an online resource working directly with D.C. public schools to help support students learning distance learning, as well as downloadable resource opportunities. That's the equity piece. And I wanted to just check in with your guests today, and particularly D.C. Youth Orchestra. Are you looking at Zoom chat lessons, opportunities for us to work together with D.C. public schools as educators in the current corona environment?

  • 12:39:18

    NNAMDIElizabeth Schurgin.

  • 12:39:20

    SCHURGINAbsolutely. So, right now we're in the process of putting that all together this week. So, we're going to have some online video resources for our students, both in the schools. So, we have programs that operate after school, so we're in five afterschool settings cross the District. And then we have a citywide program that is offered at Takoma Education Campus on Saturdays. And so we're looking to put together some resources for students and their families to continue their learning while we are closed, until the schools are back up and operational. Especially since we have so many families that are home, trying to fill their days with lessons and with learning.

  • 12:39:59

    SCHURGINAnd, on top of that, we have a lot of musicians and music educators in the region that are hurting because of these closures. This is an opportunity for us to continue our learning while the coronavirus has us all shut down.

  • 12:40:13

    NNAMDIAnd, Lissa, thank you very much for your call. We got an email from Ken Giles who says, congratulations to the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program on 60 years of music education in D.C. My two boys were in the youth orchestra in the 1980s and '90s, and it gave them an appreciation of music and good memories of concerts. And it inspired me to switch careers and become a violin teacher. I really value having the D.C. Youth Orchestra in our community. Ken, thank you for your email.

  • 12:40:41

    NNAMDIDon Johns, DCPS mandates that elementary school students get 45 minutes of music instruction per week, but middle and high schools require only one semester of study, and that might not be a performing group. How does DMV Percussion Academy supplement music education for students across various grade levels?

  • 12:41:01

    JOHNSIt's a great question. We actually are amidst planning a variety of different programs that are age appropriate for students at different levels. We've set up bucket bands at several different schools around the area for students that are younger and perhaps aren't, you know, old enough or strong enough to carry full-size drums in a drum line setting. But then we also, by contrast, for the older students, have gotten instruments and plugged in instructors at different schools to set up drum lines for some of the older students, as well. So, students are receiving percussion-based activities at a variety of forms based on their age and ability level.

  • 12:41:36

    NNAMDIElizabeth Schurgin, what about the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program? Is it just band and orchestra?

  • 12:41:42

    SCHURGINSo, we offer group lessons at the beginning level. So, if you want to start learning trombone or bass or trumpet, we have a spot for you. So, no experience is required. And then as you progress through our curriculum -- which has been developed by our fantastic faculty, Donny and Ken Giles being part of that over the last 60 years -- you progress through a series of different ensembles. So, like what you see happening in a lot of different schools across the country, you have band and string orchestra, so wind ensemble and string orchestra separated on the beginner and intermediate levels. And then we combine for full orchestra as you advance through our program.

  • 12:42:19

    NNAMDIWhat's your fee structure?

  • 12:42:21

    SCHURGINSo, our Saturday program, the one offered at Takoma Education Campus is offered on a sliding scale. So, we look at household an size and income for families that require assistance, and you can start as low as $25 a semester. And then our full-loaded price is about $500 a semester at the most advanced levels. But this is already subsidized. It costs us an average about $700 per student.

  • 12:42:44

    SCHURGINAnd so, if you're at the $25 level, you also receive an instrument, because we know that that can be a barrier for some of our families, certainly in continuing our music education. So, we want to make sure that they have that opportunity to stay with us as long as they want to be.

  • 12:42:59

    NNAMDIHere now is Lara in Washington, D.C. Lara, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:43:05

    LARAYes, hi. My son is a member of the GenOUT Youth Chorus, which is the youth division of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington. And GenOUT is a chorus of LGBTQ and allied youth. And I want to say that in addition to the other advantages of music education that your guests have mentioned, being a member of a choir teaches young people to use their voice to speak up for themselves, in the case of a group like GenOUT, to show pride and confidence and be representatives for equality. So, it's a program that I really recommend.

  • 12:43:41

    NNAMDIKen Elpus, can you expand on that about what exactly being in a choir or participation in music does for young people?

  • 12:43:48

    ELPUSSure. I think one of the most important things is that the music teacher often serves as a very influential, non-parental adult in the lives of kids and teenagers. Often, when you look at school-based or even community-based ensembles, music teachers are some of the only adults who work with children and teenagers over the course of multiple years. But they get a chance to see them grow into the people that they're going to become, and to also model excellent behavior, excellent musicianship, excellent artistry and excellent humanity for those kids. And we find that that helps kids be more engaged in their schooling, and leads to better developmental outcomes.

  • 12:44:21

    NNAMDIHere is Elizabeth in Howard County. Elizabeth, your turn.

  • 12:44:24

    ELIZABETHHi. I teach music in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. And I find that my students really thrive in music when they don't in other subject areas. And it really warms my heart to see my students experiencing success when I know that they might struggle with math or reading. I teach in a very low socioeconomic area. And we work really hard to make sure that all of our students get to do a lot of fun things in music.

  • 12:44:52

    NNAMDIIs that something you have observed, too, Elizabeth Schurgin?

  • 12:44:54

    SCHURGINAbsolutely. One of the things -- and we touched about this -- is this sense of community. So, we find sometimes there are many different entry points for students and why they want to play a musical instrument or be part of an ensemble. For some of them, they really like the challenge of their pursuit of studying their instrument. And for other students, they find a home amongst their fellow musicians. And so, we see in that setting that they can thrive, when in some times and in some areas, they may be struggling.

  • 12:45:23

    NNAMDIDon Johns, you have hosted clinics to help teachers start drum lines at their schools and study percussion at community centers. What can you tell us about those efforts?

  • 12:45:32

    JOHNSIt's been really great to see percussion -- much like Elizabeth was saying -- sort of bring people together in a sense of community. We've set up a drum circle or drum line program at the Trayon Community Center in southeast D.C. for students who have been specifically affected by gun violence. And we've just seen the students -- it's one of those things that -- it's kind of a refuge for the kids. They're able to have something they can feel confident about. They can feel a sense of community and pride. And we're seeing actual, really significant changes in just their whole demeanor and just kind of their outlook right now going through these trying times.

  • 12:46:07

    NNAMDIYour 20/20 percussion academy is coming up in June...

  • 12:46:12


  • 12:46:12

    NNAMDI...assuming there are no disruptions. What can you tell us about it?

  • 12:46:15

    JOHNSYeah, let's hope. Yeah, we're looking to be better than ever. This'll be the third installment of our summer percussion workshop. We started in 2018 with about 18 students. Last summer we had 34 students and I'm hoping to have 45 to 50 students this year. We bring together lots of huge names in the percussion world. I have the timpani players from the National Symphony, Jauvon Gilliam. I have another percussionist from the Baltimore Symphony, Brian Prechtl. Another teacher from Peabody Conservatory, Jeff Stern, a Grammy-winning drum set artist named McClenty Hunter, and several others all coming together to work with the students for a week.

  • 12:46:52

    NNAMDISounds fascinating. Here is Robert in Washington, D.C. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:46:57

    ROBERTHi, Kojo. My daughter grew up in the DCYOP Program in percussion. In fact, she was a student of Mr. Johns. It was a major influence on her life from the time she was single digit on out, and it cannot be overstated how important this stuff is, at least as far as the number of kids I know and that my daughter grew up with.

  • 12:47:18

    NNAMDIWhat is your daughter doing now?

  • 12:47:20

    ROBERTShe's at University of Chicago, where I'm driving to pick her up because they're closing her dorm this week.

  • 12:47:26

    NNAMDIWell, sorry they're closing her dorm. But, Don Johns, how many stories like that have you heard overtime?

  • 12:47:35

    JOHNSThere's been so many. Allegra, the student that he's referring to, was one of my outstanding and incredible students, and young person. And I had the pleasure of working with her for several years. But we've had a variety of students who, through music and through percussion, have been able to cultivate the skills needed to be successful young people.

  • 12:47:55

    NNAMDIOh, by the way, with your academy coming up in June, can students still register? Is there a cost?

  • 12:48:02

    JOHNSSo, we have several subsidies for students in Prince George's County and D.C. whose families demonstrate that need. For families who do not demonstrate the need, it is 450 for the week, but they can register online at DMVPercussion.org.

  • 12:48:21

    NNAMDIAnd, you know, I grew up listening to steel bands and steel drums. Is it too late for me to join, (laugh) to try to learn how to play?

  • 12:48:28

    JOHNSWe'll have a special spot just for you, Kojo, absolutely. (laugh)

  • 12:48:32

    NNAMDI(laugh) I really, really appreciate that.

  • 12:48:34

    JOHNSSure thing.

  • 12:48:35

    NNAMDIElizabeth Schurgin, before we go, anything you want to say about the plans for the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program this summer, once they can proceed?

  • 12:48:43

    SCHURGINAbsolutely. So, I hope that we are up and running in the next couple of months. A couple of plugs for our concerts: May 16th at 3:00 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, our youth orchestra will perform a free concert, no tickets required. On June 5th, in the evening, our groups will perform in front of the Lincoln Memorial, again, a free concert, no tickets required.

  • 12:49:06

    SCHURGINAnd, by June, our registration will be up for the fall. So, if you are looking to start or learn a musical instrument, you will be able to register for a class of your choice then. And if you already play an instrument, you can sign up for our auditions. Auditions will begin in August, and the semester will begin in September. And, again, that's our program that is offered at Takoma Education Campus in Takoma, D.C. And it is open to everyone from D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

  • 12:49:36

    NNAMDIElizabeth Schurgin is executive director of the D.C. Youth Orchestra Program. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:49:42

    SCHURGINThank you for having me.

  • 12:49:43

    NNAMDIDon Johns -- may I call you Donny?

  • 12:49:45

    JOHNSYes, absolutely. (laugh)

  • 12:49:46

    NNAMDI(laugh) Donny Johns is founder and director of DMV Percussion. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:49:52

    JOHNSThank you for having me.

  • 12:49:53

    NNAMDIAnd Ken Elpus is an assistant professor and coordinator of Music Education at the University of Maryland College Park. Ken Elpus, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:50:01

    ELPUSThank you for having me.

  • 12:50:02

    NNAMDIThis segment about arts organizations filling the void left by shrinking school music programs was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. And our conversation about consolidating and eliminating bus lines across the region was produced by Richard Cunningham. Coming up tomorrow, by April 1st, the Census Bureau will have contacted or tried to reach every household in the U.S. But what exactly is the census and why is it important? Plus, how are tip workers and others in the food industry coping as the coronavirus pandemic empties restaurants and bars? That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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