music education

Play it Forward: restoring music education

This month's Virtual Supper Club event supports pianist Michael Allen Harrison's program to bring music lessons to Oregon students

When Michael Allen Harrison was growing up in 1960s Portland, arts education enriched his life. “All the public schools had band programs, strings programs, choir, theater, painting, sculpture,” he remembers. “There were piano teachers in every neighborhood. We had everything at our fingertips to figure out what we were good at, what inspired us.”

What inspired Harrison was playing piano and composing music. He used the skills and qualities he gained from his arts education to become one of the most successful pianists in so-called New Age music, found his own record label, record more than 60 albums, score musicals, films, ballets, theater productions and orchestral compositions, and much more. He was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.

Michael Allen Harrison

But as his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. 

Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it. Two decades ago, he created the Snowman Foundation program to support music education in Oregon and eventually Seattle, then the Ten Grands fundraising concert to bring pianos to students whose families couldn’t afford them. And three years ago, his Play it Forward program embarked on the culminating phase of his original vision. 

But like so many other worthy educational and musical efforts this year, Play it Forward has had to shift gears — though the engine is still running strong and moving forward. And this week, Oregon arts lovers can help.

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A cello, a violin, a final grace note

At a North Portland school, a lifelong music lover and students in the BRAVO music program meet and learn in the circle of life


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


On a busy musical afternoon at Sitton Elementary School in Portland’s St. Johns district earlier this month, a woman arrived at after-school music rehearsals bearing gifts: a cello in a hard case, and a half-size violin.

As it turns out, the cello and violin – as welcome as they were for the BRAVO Youth Orchestras program, in a school where the price of instruments is often beyond the means of the young musicians’ families – were emblematic of a larger gift: a gift of love and legacy; a passing-on, from generation to generation, of joy and encouragement. A going-away gift; a final grace note.

Sara Waddell and BRAVO’s Seth Truby, passing the torch.

The students are part of BRAVO, a program fashioned after the El Sistema movement that began in 1975 on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, to bring the love and challenge of music to children in the barrios. Portland’s program began in 2013, and also concentrates on areas with higher than average poverty rates.

The woman is Sara Waddell, a 52-year-old mother of two teens from Beaverton who set aside her own musical studies and teaching career years ago to raise her sons. “I had sold my wonderful cello with its rich, beautiful tone from my younger years of trying to learn in college when my kids were very small and my little family needed the money,” she said. “Then I did without and believed I had given up learning to play forever.”

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Vision 2020: Martin Majkut

Rogue Valley Symphony's energetic conductor: music education in the schools is the key to getting people into concert halls

Conductor Martin Majkut divides his time between the East and West Coasts. He’s in his third season as musical director for the Queens Symphony Orchestra in New York. Fortunately for Oregonians, his West Coast life is rooted in Southern Oregon, where he has spent nearly a decade as conductor for the Rogue Valley Symphony.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), Majkut graduated from the State Conservatory and served as assistant conductor of the Slovak Philharmonic while earning his Ph.D. in conducting at the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. He came to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in 2003 and earned a DMA, his second doctorate, in 2008, at the University of Arizona.

He’s been with the Rogue Valley Symphony since 2010, during which time the symphony marked its 50th anniversary.

Martin Majkut conducts symphony orchestras on both coasts. For its size and location, he says, Southern Oregon has a surprisingly vibrant art scene. Photo by: Christopher Briscoe

I know you split your time between two symphonies on two coasts, but I’m wondering if you could briefly characterize the general state of artistic and cultural life in the Medford area. What’s going on there? What should the rest of Oregon know?

I jokingly maintain that Rogue Valley has “more arts than it deserves.” What I mean is that for its size and its location, the arts scene is surprisingly vibrant, with a number of organizations producing good quality work. Lots of it, however, is driven by the retirees, who come by and large from the Bay Area. They move to Rogue Valley for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and discover other local institutions, which they are happy to support, as arts have been part of their lifestyle in their previous life. The local arts boards consist mainly of people who were not born in the area. As much as we strive to enrich everyone’s life, deep down it is still a rural area and arts are an import.

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