Severance Hall may be one of the grandest buildings in Northeast Ohio, but it’s no ivory tower.
Indeed, when it comes to music education in the city, the Cleveland Orchestra is often right on the front lines, leading by example.
Its musicians and staff don’t just offer concerts for children at a distance. They work with individuals one-on-one, fostering talent and encouraging young people to pursue and pass on their love of music.
“There’s nothing better than sitting in the middle of our great orchestra,” said violinist Kathleen Collins, one of the group’s most passionate educators. “Personally, though, I get more meaning out of teaching, out of having that contact and seeing that blossoming firsthand.”
Through innumerable educational outreach efforts over the years designed to sustain an audience for classical music, Collins and her Cleveland Orchestra colleagues have appeared in schools all over Northeast Ohio. The whole orchestra also has completed short-term residencies in several neighborhoods around the city, including Slavic Village, Lakewood, Hough, and Gordon Square. But it’s at the Cleveland School of the Arts, the region’s premier arts high, where they’ve arguably had the greatest impact.
There, a stone’s throw from Severance Hall, through a high-level teaching program called Music Mentors, the artists have ushered any number of young players off to a musical life in college and beyond. Recently, too, even as the pandemic pushed everything online, they’ve even inspired some of those same young players to become educators themselves.
“The whole thing was sort of a beautiful accident,” said Courtney Gazda, associate manager of learning programs, referring to the evolution of the four-year-old Mentors program, one of many ongoing education efforts underway at the orchestra. “It just blossomed on its own.”
The student becomes the teacher
A sterling example of that blossoming is violinist Darnell McMullen, one of 11 CSA students in the program this year. Through Collins and the Mentors program, the CSA senior settled on a musical direction after high school and took on younger students of his own.
When Collins met McMullen, at a separate outreach event, she spotted his potential immediately. “You could absolutely tell he was really talented and motivated,” she recalled of the then-ninth grader. “He was the ideal person you’d want to teach.”
McMullen, too, was drawn to Collins. In her, he remembered, he saw a relatable personality and an artist who expressed herself through music in a way he admired.
The two struck up a teacher-student relationship and began meeting for both private lessons and group coaching sessions. In that way, music for McMullen and the other ten students in the program transformed from an obligation into an outlet, and a possible career option.
“I started to realize the importance of music,” McMullen said. “I wanted others to understand how I feel about music.”
He soon found a way to do just that. In 11th grade, McMullen and two other Mentors participants volunteered to join a separate Cleveland Orchestra-led program targeting younger students called Mound School Strings, an orchestra-led music education program designed to funnel students in the Music Mentors program.
That program turned them into the teachers. They got the after-school jobs of a lifetime, spending two days a week passing on their own knowledge, assisting Cleveland Orchestra members in teaching violin and general musicianship to third- and fourth-graders at Mound STEM School, an elementary school in Cleveland’s Slavic Village neighborhood specializing in science, technology, engineering, and math.
The idea, Gazda said, was two-fold: to empower Mentors students to give back to their communities and offer a rare chance for Cleveland students to train in music education before college. She herself would have loved such an experience, she said.
For would-be music educators, “there’s not much of anything out there,” Gazda said. “There’s really no training when you’re still in high school. You’re just thrown into it. It’s always been something that’s bothered me.”
Making a connection
All three Mound School Strings participants are meeting with success. Gazda said the third- and fourth-graders “really, really look up to” their older peers from the Cleveland School of the Arts.
McMullen, though, has proved something of a natural. Closer in age to the Mound students and a Cleveland resident like them, he discovered an ability to bond with his pupils in a way that Cleveland Orchestra professionals can’t.
Even after lessons shifted online during the pandemic, he found he had a particular gift for connecting with young boys, modeling a life in serious study of classical music.
“They’re more comfortable around me,” McMullen surmised. “Sometimes I can relate to what they’re talking about.
“When that happens, they pay more attention to what I’m saying, and when they start to understand more, it feels good. Their faces light up and they start talking to other students about it.”
At least one student testified to McMullen’s effectiveness. Speaking as bluntly as only a fourth-grader can, Mound student Kenneth Perry said “most teachers are kind of boring,” but that McMullen has a unique way of making music interesting for him. He said he plans to continue with violin in fifth grade, after McMullen goes off to college.
Which college that will be remains to be seen. Although McMullen was accepted at Loyola University, his first choice, he said he has yet to commit to the school.
Like most incoming freshmen, too, McMullen also hasn’t yet settled on a major. All he knows at this point is that he’ll study music. He may go down the performance path, or, given his experience at Mound, he may pursue music education.
“He’s going to be a major success, wherever he goes,” Collins predicted. “He’s such a great ambassador for the violin and music.”
The Music Mentors and student-teaching at Mound programs also will endure. Gazda said she’s already lining up a new batch of Music Mentors for next year and scouting among them for at least three volunteers interested in picking up where McMullen and his CSA peers leave off.
Given how well things went this year despite the pandemic, Gazda said she feels compelled to see the effort flourish.
“I really feel our high school students are so important,” Gazda said. “The younger children need to have someone to look up to…and they’re setting such a great example.”
Zachary Lewis is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He covers an array of subjects but specializes in the arts.