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My Exhilarating 45-Year Adventure

 By Annabelle F. Prager, Founder of the InterSchool Orchestras of New York

Music-making has provided me with some of the most profoundly joyous moments of my life.  I always assumed that my children, in fact all children, would be able to share in this great pleasure.  So, in 1971 when my 12-year old son expressed interest in playing the clarinet, I approached a well-known children’s clarinet teacher and asked if he would give him lessons.  “I’m inclined to say “No,” he told me.  “Your son doesn’t go to one of the few schools left in the city that has an orchestra.  There is simply no place for him to play except by himself at home.” 

As crestfallen as I was affronted, I marched right over to the Collegiate School where my son was a student.  “Where’s the orchestra?” I demanded.  “Why don’t you start one” came the answer. 

As an artist and an author of children’s books and a fervent choral singer, I didn’t know anything about starting an orchestra, but it didn’t take me long to learn that the remarks about the dearth of music in the schools were just the tip of the iceberg.  In New York City, budget cuts and other priorities were rapidly eliminating music programs of all kinds from school curricula.  Even the neighborhood music schools didn’t offer instrumental ensembles.  Only 17% of the bands and orchestras that used to thrive in the schools across the nation remained in place.  Someone would have to do something about this unfortunate situation and it looked as if that someone was going to be me. 

I called a meeting of music teachers and hit the jackpot.  David Hume, head of the St. David’s School, showed up.  David was familiar with many schools, but more important than that, he felt strongly that making music belonged in the lives of children.  He helped me put together a committee made up of music lovers, parents, influential musicians, and the heads of two of the most prestigious private schools in the city.  We were on our way with a conductor from one of the few schools that had an instrumental ensemble.  

In June 1972, a little orchestra made up of 32 children from sixteen supporting private schools and six additional public schools gave its first concert at the Chapin School.  The ISO Orchestra (now the ISO Symphony) has had many triumphs since that time.  It has performed in the pit for the Dance Theater of Harlem, it has rehearsed under the baton of Kurt Masur and made the front page of The New York Times playing at Grand Central Station.  But I do not believe there will ever be an event that will equal the excitement of that first concert.  Twelfth graders and fourth graders played side by side.  There were lots of violins and too many flutes.  Nobody minded—they were so thrilled to be making music. 

The orchestra was a success.  We divided it into two ensembles so that top players could progress more rapidly.  Eventually beginning orchestras grew out of the realization that ensemble skills are best developed at an early age.  We vowed to accept any student from any school who wanted to participate regardless of income.  Talent should be nurtured in every child whatever his cultural or economic background. 

Soon after they were founded we took our little orchestras into the schools, free of charge.  The audiences were delighted to find children their own age making music and thrilled to discover that they would be able to make it too.  We devised programs for fourth and fifth grades, giving mini-lessons so children could try wind, brass and string instruments.  Our popular instrumental introductions, which launched dozens of children on musical careers, developed out of these efforts, so did our scholarship incentives to tackle more difficult instruments such as the viola and tuba.

By 1979 our programs had been in operation for seven years, but they were only known to a limited group of schools.  We scheduled auditions to find an experienced, charismatic music director to help us broaden our horizons. 

Choosing Jonathan Strasser from the Manhattan School of Music and the High School of Performing Arts (now LaGuardia High School) to be ISO’s new Music Director was one of the most important contributions I made to ISO in my 45 years. 

We had many appealing, talented candidates, but I learned Jonathan was unique.  He was the only candidate who was working successfully in the public schools and could bring new children to ISO because of his experience as a beloved teacher, along with his erudition, feisty, realistic attitude, and his matchless ability to inspire a love of music.

It was a significant turning point.  We had success we never dreamt was possible.  He was a Pied Piper.  The ranks of ISO orchestras swelled.  Musical standards improved dramatically.  

From that time on schools and musically underserved institutions clamored to receive our program of free concerts, assemblies and instrumental introductions.  They became so popular, there was a waiting list. 

Jonathan was an ideal partner, always eager to work on new ideas and with the schools.  Jazz and musical theater were added to the program.  We gave awards.  We created a percussion workshop.  Jonathan taught conducting and organized the Teacher Intern Program (TIP), which gave teenage instructors a chance to work with beginning students in schools where music instruction was unavailable.  Prestigious artists volunteered to play with us.  There were annual rehearsals with the New York Philharmonic and London Symphony.  I arranged festivals of the great music of France, Italy and Great Britain which were accompanied by booklets I wrote that were distributed to the schools.  We traveled as far afield as Venezuela—all expenses paid.  The exciting fundraisers and collaborations were too numerous to be able to list them all here.

Our ability to start more, new instrumental programs for public schools took a giant step forward when we came across a treasure trove of musical instruments, broken, dusty and forgotten in the basement of a Chinatown elementary school where we had given an assembly program.  Calls to other schools turned up similar caches left over from days when bands and orchestras used to flourish.  As luck would have it, on one evening I told this story to my dinner partner who happened to be a trustee of a children’s foundation that supplies equipment for not-for-profit organizations.  He became wildly excited.  “I’ll supply the funds to repair the instruments,” he declared, “if you find ways to help the schools use them.”  He took special delight in the programs that were soon underway employing faculty who had lost their jobs due to budget cuts.  At one beleaguered school, space was at such a premium that music classes were held in a stairwell. 

The tide of public opinion began to turn in favor of our goals in the late 1980’s.  The New York Times finally sent out an alarm about the dismanteling of arts programs in the schools.  The Times also praised ISO for its unique hands on opportunities which create unparalleled devotion to music.  More music began to be taught again in the schools and ISO continued to bolster and encourage it.

I couldn’t resist a smile of satisfaction when I heard that prestigious musical organizations were presenting special performances for the schools.  These were the very organizations that turned a cold shoulder on me during my constant attempts to form a constructive partnership with them.  With support from Itzhak Perlman and McGraw Hill, ISO organized productive music forums, “How Can We Best Serve Our Schools,” on two successive years.  They enabled organizations like the New York Philharmonic to come together with funders to exchange ideas and pinpoint problems with the schools.

Today I am proud to say that the wide variety of performance and educational opportunities that ISO provides goes way beyond what most communities can offer.  It is a treasured organization that ensures its teaching is superb, its environment is nurturing, its influence is felt far and wide, and its budget is balanced.  (Of all the arts, music is the most expensive to fund.)  When it comes to fundraising, I find the personal appeal works best.  Nothing goes out over my name without a one to one note, letter or a persuasive phone call. 

ISO is considered one of the most essential musical resources for children to be found anywhere, a winner of the Bank of New York’s Award for Excellence in Orchestra Education, and an inspiring 45-year example that other youth orchestras often follow. 

I can’t stop bragging about ISO or making fabulous connections where the orchestras might be able to shine.  What makes me proudest of all are the children themselves, from every possible background, from the most talented winners of ISO prestigious concerto competitions to the eager little six year-olds in the Morningside Orchestra, their enthusiasm, dedication to excellence and their joy in the task at hand are testimony to what music can do for young people and young people for music. 

I have spent forty-five sensational years, nearly half of my life, on my urgent mission.  In recognition of my devotion I have been fortunate enough to be honored by the Women’s City Club, the Municipal Art Society and the Channel 13 Hall of Fame.

But at age 95, it’s time to hand over the reins.  

On June 12, 2017, the board of directors of the ISO voted unanimously to change my status to “Founder and Trustee Emeritus” for my 45 years of “exemplary service, dedication and inspiring vision.” 

While I’m taking a step back, I will never relinquish my vision which I hope will inspire ISO forever and ever.  

It has indeed been an exhilarating adventure.