“There’s nothing like the sound of several thousand elementary students on recorder,” says Joanna Massey, Director of Learning and Engagement at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. A horde of recorder-wielding elementary school students might sound like a terrifying prospect on paper, but the interactive performances she refers to, in which students in Grades 3 to 5 play along with a professional symphony orchestra from their seats – are actually an integral part of her organisation’s hugely popular Link Up programme, an initiative which has helped introduce young people to orchestral music for over three decades and is expected to reach more than 400,000 children worldwide this year.

<i>Link Up</i> in action © Chris Lee
Link Up in action
© Chris Lee

The idea behind Link Up

Massey recalls the words of a young student at a Link Up event who, when asked if he enjoyed the concert, gave the baffled reply, “Well, I was the concert.” This is in essence what WMI is trying to achieve with the programme – participants learn about orchestral music by becoming part of the orchestra. Over the course of a year, orchestras work with schools in their local communities to teach one of four curricula, each focusing on a different aspect of music – The Orchestra Sings, for example, focuses on how composers create melodies, while The Orchestra Rocks explores rhythm. This results in a final concert in which the students sing or play – either on recorder or strings – along with the orchestra from their seats in the hall. Sometimes, students perform on stage, too. In “linking up” classrooms and the concert hall, WMI hopes to introduce children to their first experience of playing an instrument and reading notation while fostering an appreciation of music in general and orchestral music in particular. On the other side of the coin, participating orchestras themselves are thought to benefit from reaching out, as Massey says: “It’s a vehicle for them to connect more deeply with their communities, and certainly with young people and schools.”

How Link Up works

Massey explains that the successes of the programme so far have hinged on the closeness of the collaboration between WMI and participating orchestras and arts organisations, adding, “It’s a pretty robust partnership.” Orchestras who are interested in running the programme are invited to a conference at Carnegie Hall held every Spring, and once on-board they must take the initiative in recruiting schools in their areas to participate. WMI then provides the orchestra with all the resources they need to run the programme: a score for the repertoire used, cues for the end of year concert and materials for the professional development sessions they are required to run for schoolteachers taking part. In some cases, musicians from the orchestras will even go into the classrooms to help prepare the students for the performance, though this is an optional extra. A designer from Broadway also creates projections which can be used by orchestras who have the facilities. All resources used in the schools, meanwhile, are provided by WMI for free.

According to Massey, WMI works closely with the partner orchestras throughout the course of the programme, with a team of staff dedicated to troubleshooting problems and creating connections between participating organisations. They run webinars, for example, allowing the different orchestras who’ve run the programme to share their experience and expertise. By necessity, there is also collaboration with local school systems or other official bodies. According to Massey, far from restricting the programme, this approach fosters an atmosphere where “partners are really customising the programme for their needs, the repertoire that works for their orchestra”. There are the inevitable challenges, namely the initial process of drumming up interest from schools, navigating transitions between administrations and teaching staff, not to mention the logistical issues of running concerts featuring casts of schoolchildren that can run into the thousands. Yet such challenges would appear to be more than surmountable given the popularity of the programme: initially running solely in New York, Link Up now works with around 15,000 students and teachers in the city, while schools across the US and in countries such as Canada, Spain, Brazil, Japan and more recently, Kenya have taken up the scheme.

Link Up around the world

Link Up really looks different in different places, and that’s great because that’s what we want communities to be able to do,” affirms Massey. So how does WMI navigate the presumably difficult process of adapting and implementing a scheme in countries like Japan where not only the education system, but also the musical culture will be markedly different from the US? “Japan is a vastly different music education system than in the United States,” agrees Massey. “So there were many changes to the structure of the curriculum that we worked collaboratively on.” In the case of their existing Japanese partner, Sapporo’s Pacific Music Festival (an additional Japanese partnership is apparently in the works) this involved working closely with the local board of education to align the programme to the Japanese system. One major adaptation, for example, was how the PMF used Link Up to teach English language skills, with the children singing along in English to the Link Up theme song “Come to Play” by composer Thomas Cabaniss. According to Massey, this collaboration with the local authorities certainly paid off in the performance: “I went to the second year of the students’ concerts and I was frankly blown away by the level of playing… the students were incredibly well prepared.”

The international growth of Link Up largely took place over the last five years, but the programme’s more recent foray into Nairobi, Kenya seems particularly impressive. It came about when Elizabeth Njoroge of the Kenyan classical music organisation Art of Music Foundation learned of WMI through its work with the Venezuelan music education programme El Sistema. Seeing Link Up as a potential ally in her goal of bringing classical music to young people in Kenya, Njoroge visited Carnegie Hall and set about adapting the programme to fit her needs. Running in Nairobi for the first time in 2016, this version of Link Up was run as an after-school programme, with children of any age or ability being able to sign up, and with a local youth orchestra serving as the musical backbone in the final concert. Differing from how Link Up is run in the US, the children’s families are invited to these concerts. “They’re working in extremely challenged circumstances,” says Massey of the participating Safaricom Youth Orchestra. “And they’re making it work.” Due to political changes following the 2017 Kenyan general election, this year’s scheduled Link Up concerts have had to be moved to next year, but Njoroge (“a complete powerhouse,” says Massey) reportedly hopes to expand the programme in Nairobi and, indeed, the rest of the country.

The future of Link Up

 

Talking to Massey, it seems that flexibility is the key aspect of Link Up that WMI wishes to underline, not only in terms of how the partners implement the programme but in the types of music that orchestras can explore with students. “We’ve started to take a broader view of the orchestral canon and of the music that we want people to be exposed to through the symphony orchestra,” she says. “And there are lots of varying opinions on that.” While there had previously been elements of Link Up that incorporated elements of non-classical music – for example, pairing marching bands and samba ensembles with orchestras to illustrate rhythmic devices – a new Link Up curriculum, The Orchestra Swings, diverges more explicitly from the classical tradition by exploring jazz from the era of Gershwin and Duke Ellington. This particular programme premiered in New York earlier this year and sees the orchestra play alongside a jazz ensemble. Orchestras in other cities will be taking on The Orchestra Swings over the coming months. “We’re trying to represent as much as possible,” says Massey of this new approach. “Not only younger and living composers but also composers of colour and music that goes beyond a more narrow scope of orchestral repertoire.” Adapting the programmes and modifying the repertoire seems to be an ongoing and collaborative process, however, as Massey states: “We’re constantly relying on our partners to try new things and to also be open to the things that we’re asking them to do.”

With 103 partner organisations across the world taking on the Link Up programme, where else is there to go from here? Massey tells me that the Fund II Foundation gifted the programme a substantial financial sum to be used over 10 years. Over this decade, WMI has set itself the goal of serving 5 million children through Link Up. One step along that road lies in expanding into more countries. China is on the horizon, with a working relationship already established between Carnegie Hall and the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing. “We want to see the programme offered in as many locations as it can and serve as many young people as it can,” says Massey. “We’re excited, there’s a lot on the horizon, and a lot more growth to come.”

All the drawings in this article were created by children from Woodlawn Elementary School who took part in The Orchestra Rocks in St Petersburg, Florida with The Florida OrchestraYou can find out more about Link Up on Carnegie Hall’s site.