Rebuilding Your Program? You May Need Different Tools

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Rebuilding Your Program? You May Need Different Tools

Ben Gudbrandson, Artistic Director, Kalamazoo Kids In Tune, in collaboration with Donielle Hetrick, Afterschool Program Manager, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra


My Papa grew up on the oil fields of Northern Michigan in the 1940s. He learned quickly the importance of working smarter, not harder; when anybody was faced with a challenge he would say, “Get a bigger hammer, son.” For a long time, I didn’t understand what it meant. But this year, the Kalamazoo Kids In Tune staff and I have leaned into this idea more than ever.

The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra’s Kalamazoo Kids In Tune (KKIT) is a relatively small El Sistema-inspired program in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The year 2019 was a time of growth for our program, and we were excited to make big waves in 2020 as we celebrated our ten-year anniversary. Then, without warning, our doors were closed by the pandemic, and we were left asking, “What do we do now?” The immediate answer seemed obvious: we needed to find a way to get music into the homes of our students. We quickly got to work creating orchestra play-along videos for YouTube with downloadable sheet music. We held Facebook Live events and weekly private lessons over Zoom. We thought we had a winning recipe! After two months it became clear that we didn’t: between March 2020 and June 2020, our enrollment dropped by 69 percent. This was a wake-up call to all of us at KKIT that we weren’t reaching our students. We realized that we needed to reimagine KKIT to better serve our community. Get a bigger hammer, son! So we upgraded our tools and rebuilt our online programming on three guiding principles. Since then, we have experienced a rebirth at KKIT, resulting in a nearly 200 percent participation increase since June.

KKIT oboe students smiling after sectional rehearsal, 2019. Photo courtesy of KKIT.

Some hard reflection revealed that we had left our students out of the equation in our initial virtual plans. We thought our programming reflected their wants, but when we looked around our community, it was clear that our KKIT families and staff were hurting. Racial injustices were making national headlines, and our students were on the streets protesting. We were fighting two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism. This led us to our first guiding principle: a recommitment to Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education (CRSE). CRSE is a principle that many music programs already are passionate about, and one we had been exploring through our work with PlayUSA through Carnegie Hall. CRSE is not a list of items to check off; rather, it’s a mindset that empowers youth, creates a space to explore across the lines of difference, breaks up the power dynamic, and puts the collective first. CRSE should influence the culture and community of the program itself. To help our youth explore their sociocultural identities, we established a community time class at the beginning of the program. During this 20-minute block, we engaged youth in dialogue about diversity, inclusion, and social justice topics. We discussed the importance of listening in understanding, loving your neighbor, and speaking up for truth. We partnered with youth as they explored how they could bring about change with their voices and through their music. This simple, honest time each day quickly became the glue that held KKIT together. Our students didn’t need orchestra play-along videos; they needed raw, honest, and relevant conversation.

Our second guiding principle was a willingness to let our priorities shift. At KKIT, we believe in the transformative power of music, social-emotional development, and community. Prior to Spring 2020, these three ideals were given equal weight. After an honest assessment, we recognized that we were attempting to fit an old model into a new reality. Our students needed holistic support more than they needed to work on their musical scales. So we let go of what was no longer serving us. We eliminated orchestra and made chamber ensembles optional. Instead, we prioritized private lessons where students could connect one-on-one with their teachers. This may seem counterintuitive for an orchestra program, but in the term “youth orchestra,” “youth” comes before “orchestra.” The go-to process became “adapt, reflect, and adapt some more.” Our staff answered this call for innovation in ways we never could have predicted. Ideas for enrichment classes, social media campaigns, virtual social gatherings, and family engagement began flowing in, making our community stronger than ever.

Elementary Program students and staff are all smiles after the first day of the Fall 2020 KKIT Virtual Program. Photo courtesy of KKIT.

It sounds cliché, but many programs know this to be true in their own communities: KKIT is not just a program, it’s a family. And so we leaned into our final guiding principle: invest in people more than ever. To address the challenge of recreating in-person connections online, we scheduled regular touch points of interaction for everyone involved in the program. This ranged from Netflix watch parties and TikTok challenges to weekly capstone recitals, virtual game nights, and the creation of monthly silly news shows hosted by our teachers. Discussions with staff about their personal and professional goals led them to step up in ways we never would have imagined. This ranged from creating a Family Resource Hub and hosting weekly academic tutoring sessions to leading our digital media productions and establishing branding guidelines for our social media platforms. We found that when we invested in people individually, it resulted in collective growth.

Over the past 14 months, we have transformed from a stagnant online student orchestra into a thriving virtual community with new students enrolling every month. We are no longer a place where students gather to play music, but instead a community that empowers each other through our music. The thing to remember here is that it is not a copy-and-paste formula. While the application will be different for each program, the guiding principles are universal. Start with a commitment to Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education, be willing to let your priorities shift with those of your community, and never stop investing in your people. Don’t forget: if you struggling to adapt to a new challenge, get a bigger hammer, son!

Visit the KKIT Resource Hub to learn more about the adaptive strategies described in this story.


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