Editor’s Note: This is the first in a new series of blog posts from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra highlighting members of the Pittsburgh community and why they value their relationship with the orchestra. We will post these stories once a month at blogs.pittsburghsymphony.org/community-stories.
A month after the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra returned from performing at the Vatican, the world-renowned orchestra took a different stage, the auditorium of Wilkinsburg High School. Eight hundred people filled the auditorium on February 7, 2004 to hear the orchestra play. All the proceeds from this community concert went directly to the Wilkinsburg School District’s music programs. On that night, a relationship began between the orchestra and school district that has lasted for more than a decade. The driving force behind it all is Lois Clark, music teacher at Kelly Elementary School and lifelong friend of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Clark’s passion for music education traces back to her parents who took her to symphony orchestra concerts as frequently as possible. When Clark began teaching at the Jewish Community Day School in 1997, she passed this to her students as she discovered Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Schooltime Concerts—free concerts designed to give elementary school students an introduction to music, instruments and composition. She kept music beyond the classroom a priority when she moved to the Wilkinsburg School District in 1999 and continued to take her students to Schooltime Concerts. After one of the concerts, Clark, aware of the orchestra’s community efforts and conscious of the monetary challenge of music in public schools, asked about the possibility of a community concert in her school district. After a chuckle by Rob Davidson, former manager of education and outreach, he responded “Why don’t we?” And just like that, a committee was formed and a concert was planned for February 2004.
The revenue from these concerts has allowed Clark, on behalf of the school district, to begin the Instrumental Music Fund. This fund covers the cost of transportation to and from concerts, allows students to attend band camp, pays for master classes and ensures that every student has an instrument. It provides Wilkinsburg the security of keeping music education in its schools and the opportunity to educate above and beyond the classroom. The concerts also help form a connection with VH1, which led to three $30,000 grants across four years. Clark sums it up best, “It’s just provided [the students] with experiences that they would never, ever have.”
Though the monetary impacts are of note, Clark observes that heart of the effects lie inside the classroom. The students of the Wilkinsburg school district, which includes Kelly Elementary and Turner Elementary, have developed a comradery with Nancy Goeres, principal bassoon; Michael Rusinek, principal clarinet; and Paul Silver, viola, who visit the classroom frequently.
Clark says, “Me, I look at them as world-renowned musicians and instrumentalists; [they] are second to none. My students, they see that, but they also see them as friends.” These visits are casual and always adored by the students. “It’s just like a big party every time. They just feel like they’re golden.”
Clark recalls inside jokes and experiences from these visits like when the students lined up to see if they were taller than a bassoon, or when Nancy Goeres had the students to vote on which dress she should wear to a community concert.
Through the years, Clark has seen the students’ appreciation for music grow but also their confidence levels and sense of self: “‘Nobody’s making fun of me’; ‘nobody’s being mean to me’; ‘nobody’s picking on me’; ‘I get to do this and I love doing it.’ Those are the vibes I get from my kids when we go there and when they come to see us. You can’t put a price on that.”
The orchestra’s involvement with her students has given her faith in her student’s abilities to work hard and accomplish great things. She sees new possibilities with them that began with behavior changes. Clark says her students have learned diligence in practicing an instrument, exercised accountability and have fostered a sense of pride in their work. These changes in her students give her strength to continue doing what she loves with vigor, “Here I am [turning] 65 in May and … I’m just as gung-ho as I’ve ever been.” This motivation comes from Clark seeing the orchestra’s willingness to engage with Wilkinsburg as a positive step for music education. On the orchestra’s involvement with Kelly Elementary, Clark says, “I feel that it’s given me … the [energy] to keep plugging, to keep pushing … to keep telling people we need to keep this going. What’s going to happen if we don’t?”
Clark’s heart is vast and her impact on the community unparalleled.
“I’m always telling [my students] there [are] givers and there [are] takers. We’ve been on the receiving end a lot here so it’s time for us to give back. And they’re all into that.”
She has encouraged them to “give” through organizing concerts and ensembles that play at school events and continuously providing them opportunities to perform and learn. Most importantly she encourages the spirit of giving by example, through the gift of music she gives every day. Clark takes her students to the symphony as many times as possible, beginning with Tiny Tots for students in Pre-K through First Grade. Once the students get older, they attend Schooltime Concerts and have classroom visits with musicians. In addition to Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra events at their school, in Heinz Hall and their regular music classes which Clark teaches, she arranges several music outings throughout the year that relate to what the students are studying in their classroom. She understands the value of these experiences, “Families in our district have other priorities lots of time—feeding and clothing and taking care of all those things we take for granted. They would never have this opportunity. And now it’s … second nature.”
Clark describes her experiences with the symphony orchestra as “life changing,” and “perfection,” saying that going to the orchestra with her own family or with her students makes her want to “stand up like [she’s] at a football game.” Regardless of the super-star feeling she and her students get around the musicians, she notes how proud she is that her students are treated as equals by the musicians. She says that she has never felt that she and her students have nothing to offer and she has never felt like that they have nothing in common with the orchestra. What they have in common, Clark says, is music.
In the 12-year relationship between the Wilkinsburg School District and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Lois Clark has given her students the gift of music, making them feel equal, proud, talented and worth it. In the process Clark has made life-long friends at the orchestra, many of her students continue to play after graduating and the musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have been touched by the student musicians at Kelly and Turner Elementary. Clark continues to show the Pittsburgh Community the importance of music education, a gift which truly has no price.
The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will be returning to Wilkinsburg High School on March 23, 2017 at 7:00 p.m. for its 14th Community Concert.