OST Voices Episode #19 | DC Strings Workshop | Andrew Lee, Artistic Executive Director

OST Blog Series
May 17, 2022
Blog Post

two teens playing violin

Every student should have access to music. Because DC schools don’t universally offer music education, there is no clear path for students interested in pursuing music, and so much DC culture is lost. This is where DC Strings Workshop comes in. Through our out-of-school-time (OST) programming, we create opportunities for students, artists, and educators to bring music to the community through workshops, lessons, and performances. Our goal is to make sure the next generation of artists and musicians can nurture their talents and tell stories through music.

In many cases, OST programs provide the only music or arts education that students receive. It’s not acceptable to go through 12 years of school and not participate in a band, orchestra, or drumline. With billion dollar budgets for education in the District, it appears that resources are not the issue–it’s a lack of vision and urgency. The arts are not a priority in this city for the next generation. We need to do better for our kids. While people come from around the world to perform at and experience our nation’s cultural institutions, many students in the District cannot access this level of music-making. Playing an instrument is valuable for its own sake, and learning music can help young people academically, socially, and emotionally, but don’t forget that music education can also lead to so many different careers–producing shows, running lights and sound, making videos. By not providing this education we are seriously stunting the future opportunities of our young people in these fields.

Partnerships help build our capacity to reach more young people. Through funding from Learn24, DC Strings provides instruction in piano, percussion, and strings to hundreds of young people on Saturdays and in the summer, at no cost to families. We also partner with several  public and public charter schools as well as a few private schools. In the 2020-2021 academic year, more than 100 students participated in over 150 virtual out-of-school time tutoring sessions. But we could be reaching so many more youth. With more partners, DC Strings could serve another five schools that want our programs. Most of our students live in Wards 5, 6, 7, and 8 and we hope to expand across the District as demand for summer programming is higher than ever. This year, during the summer we intend to serve 250 young people. With just $50,000 more we could more than double our reach through virtual and hybrid programming. 

We urge the DC Council and DCPS to allocate more funding for music education, and also require a more rigorous standard of music education for all students. We understand the schools don’t all have professional music educators. DC Strings can provide the expertise and educators. Youth in neighboring jurisdictions travel to state and national conferences to perform and participate in symposiums. We must offer this caliber of opportunities to our young people.

Even before the pandemic, DC Strings worked with students who had experienced trauma. Many had witnessed or been affected by gun violence, and we partnered with the TraRon Center in Ward 8, which provides resources and therapy, to help some of our students. But once everything shut down because of COVID, basically every student was going through tough times, and helping them cope became a big part of our work. Delivering instruments to every student’s home was just the beginning. Students said they hadn’t seen their friends in months, they missed their teachers, and they wanted to play outside but their parents were worried about COVID and wouldn’t let them. We saw a significant need for healing, and we developed activities to help young people deal with isolation, uncertainty, and loss.

We incorporated mindfulness into every music lesson and class. We provided resources and outlets for kids. We hired a music therapist and integrated group therapy into our curriculum. Every student participated in two music classes, a private lesson, and group therapy each week. Everyone loved it. Now that we’re back to teaching in person, we no longer have the funding to provide music therapy. Our kids and families are all asking for it but we don’t have the resources. Even though we’re glad to be able to run our programs in person again, we would like to offer the option of virtual camps and classes. The music therapy was so powerful for students–it gave them a framework to help them process and grapple with life and the challenges they encounter. We would love to have the capacity to offer that all the time.

While we moved most of our lessons online during the pandemic, we were able to bring performances and some lessons outside, thanks to partnerships with the National Park Service and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation and the support of community foundations. Our adult orchestra played safely in parks and we live streamed performances. We offered free or discounted guitar lessons and classes to more than 100 kids a week at various parks.

We are proud that during such a stressful time we could use music to bring some joy to District residents. Now that a lot of COVID restrictions have been lifted, though, we would still like to have more of a presence throughout the city. We have a great partnership with the DMV Percussion Academy, which has a marching band and teaches drumming from around the world. We would love to expand that. We would love to have a youth orchestra. With more resources we could take 100 kids off the waiting list who are excited about music and connect them with teachers, classes, and music therapy. DC Strings Workshop would love to have the capacity to bring music education, and all the benefits it brings, to all of our city’s young people.


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