Music in the Schools, Minnesota Sinfonia — Spotlight Worthy

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, I am honored today to be interviewing Jay Fishman, Executive and Artistic Director of the Minnesota Sinfonia. Jay was the founder of the Sinfonia, which is a professional orchestra offering all its concerts free to all who want to have access to their music. This policy was inaugurated under his leadership, as was the policy of making children welcome at all concerts.

Today, Jay and I will focus on the Sinfonia’s program for inner-city schools, Music in the Schools.

Thank you so much, Jay, for agreeing to this interview.

Me: I am impressed by all that the Minnesota Sinfonia does, but particularly the Music in the Schools program. Could you give a brief overview of the program for my readers?

Jay: Music in the Schools (MIS) is a K-6 educational outreach program that helps students understand required core subjects through music. Using Minnesota Department of Education mandated academic standards as its framework, MIS provides a three to four month pre-concert curriculum focusing each year on a different academic subject: math, literature, history, science and social studies.

This year’s program is Music Tells a Story, and the academic tie is literature. Children study Romeo and Juliet, Hansel and Gretel, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and with the help of their musical counterparts, gain new insights and understanding into the meaning and accessibility of the stories. All curricula include a variety of grade oriented lesson plans, a master listening CD, and specially arranged (by conductor Jay Fishman) music for the choirs and orchestras to perform. This year’s guide cites specific state standards and related activities, thereby helping teachers make connections between the program and the state academic requirements. Next year’s program will be Water, Our Most Precious Resource – a science lesson, and will follow the same format.

After months of using the MIS curriculum in class and learning about the music to be performed by the orchestra, each partnering school hosts its own “Sinfonia Day.”

On Sinfonia Day, the entire orchestra travels to the school. The festivities begin with each classroom hosting a “get-to-know-you” visit from an orchestra member, who will play for the students, and talk about what it is like to be a professional musician. During this time, the school choirs and orchestras rehearse with Mr. Fishman in the school’s gymnasium. After the classroom visits and rehearsals, all the students attend one of the two performances in the gymnasium. Each concert is adapted for the appropriate age group – one for younger students, and the other for the older students. Each 45-minute, interactive concert allows students to see their studies come to life through music, hear the music they have studied in class, and perform for their peers, parents, and community members.

Music in the schools is an integral part of the Sinfonia’s mission “to serve the musical and educational needs of the citizens of Minnesota, with primary emphasis given to…. inner city youth.” Music in the Schools is considered such an important and vital program, that the orchestra dedicates nearly 30% of its artistic budget and over 50% of its performances to this program.


Me: Working out a curriculum that takes into account the musicians’ needs, makes the music accessible to the children and teachable for their teachers, and follows the state curriculum requirements sounds like a daunting task. How did you manage it?

Jay: First, I figure out the academic program that we want to present. The next step is to find music that would be  a reasonable link between specific music pieces and the academic subject. How can we tie the music to the subject? Next comes finding the grade by grade  state standards that would apply to this program. Then, the trick is to create  a short but useable curriculum guide for the teachers, incorporating information about the music, the composers, the state standards to be addressed, 1 or 2 academically related activities for the students to do to fulfill the requirements for the state standard. Next are the musical tasks:

• choosing  and editing musical excerpts

• arranging songs for the school choirs to sing

• composing the story [that is directly related to the academic subject]. The stories are generally written by my oldest son Bernie. Once Bernie writes the story, he and I edit it together, so I can create specific musical effects that would help move the story along, and at the same time, entertain the children.


Me: The Sinfonia website mentions the subject areas the program covers – math, history, science, social studies, literature – are all of these covered each year, or is there a focus on one particular subject in any given year?

Jay: We do one program every year. So this year we are doing “Music Tells a Story”  which of course is the connection between great literature and great music. Some of the music performed includes excerpts from Tchaikowsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Dukas’ Sorcerers’  Apprentice, Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel, Mozart’s Magic Flute (including 2 songs that the school choirs sing), and Fishman and Fishman’s Cinderella Updated!


Me: How many schools participate each year? How are they chosen?

Jay: We work with 20+ schools every year. The schools are chosen by suggestions from the school administrations, and by suggestions from other principals.  In St. Paul, one of the funding foundations specifies that we use their money in a specific section of St. Paul.


Me: I am interested to know how the various groups respond to the program, but I’ll ask about each individually:

I suspect that many of the children are not familiar with classical music, or if they’ve encountered it, they consider it “boring.” How do the children react to the program, and do the teachers see a difference in their attitude as the weeks unfold?

Jay: Everything depends on teacher involvement, and how they work with their students. We have had very good success over the years, and this year in particular, we are having great reactions. In almost every school the children are familiar both with (most of) the stories and the music. For instance, when I announce that we will be playing Romeo and Juliet, the kids start ooing and clapping even before we play the music!


Me: What is the teachers’ attitude to teaching in this rather unique curriculum? What are some typical reactions from teachers at the beginning of the program and at the conclusion?

Jay: We survey teachers at all schools regarding their assessments of Music in the Schools. The tabulated results are:

• 95% of teachers give MIS an “A” for achieving its educational objectives.

• 95% of all teacher evaluations rated the Curriculum as helpful.

• 99% of teachers report that they find the Music in the Schools program worthwhile.

• 88% said they would continue to use music in their classrooms after MIS was over.


Me: How do the Sinfonia musicians view working with the kids in the program? They do quite a bit of one-on-one interaction in the school visits – what are their comments? It must take quite a time commitment for the musicians. How is this worked out?

Jay: Every musician is different to be sure, and so their reactions of course vary from person to person. But I think the proof of their dedication and realization of the importance of MIS can best be summed up by the fact that they are the ones who do this program with absolute commitment, regularity and enthusiasm. Their performances are consistently excellent, even at 8:30-9am (remember, we are night people, who rehearse and perform at night). And their interaction with the children is very special, and I know this because of letters from teachers and the children themselves.


Me: What do you as the originator and overseeing coordinator of the program hope will be achieved through this involvement of music and the education program?

Jay: I/we do this, because I think it is vitally important for children to be exposed to quality arts – quite literally some of mankind’s greatest artistic achievements. And I know full well, that if we did not do this, then most of these children would have few if any other recourses.


Me: What would you say are the chief rewards of the program, and are there any drawbacks?

Jay: The chief reward is to see children’s hands go up en masse when I ask how many liked the music? Aside from our program, most of these children have not been exposed to classical music, and most would think that it is not appropriate for them. But when I receive letters and or comments that say, This is the first thing I ever enjoyed…your music rocks… I love your music…when are you coming back?… I never realized the relationship between math and music until now…  and literally hundreds more not only from the kids, but also from the teachers and the principals, then I know we are doing some good.

Drawbacks – raising the money – we raise the money and then give MIS to inner-city Mpls and St Paul schools without charge.

Me: Would you encourage other orchestras to attempt a similar program?

Jay: Absolutely. I would be delighted to talk with any and all orchestras that may be interested in starting a similar program.


Thank you so much, Jay, for this in-depth look at your excellent program. I’m sure all my readers join me in a hearty Bravo!




10 thoughts on “Music in the Schools, Minnesota Sinfonia — Spotlight Worthy”

  1. As a former student of music, a singer in choirs, I grew teary-eyed and nearly couldn’t finish reading this post. Not that I’m sad, but so touched by the work, the dedication and the intense purpose of aligning the study of arts with a core subject of academia in such a way that the arts finally get the recognition it deserves.

    It has often behooved me that parents (I’m a parent now so I must include myself in this) and teachers alike complain their children/students can learn the lyrics to music yet have difficulty with their times table. I have no doubt that aligning mathematics with music would show an increase in retention of knowledge.

    1. I agree, what the Sinfonia is doing, and the difference it’s making to these kids, is powerfully moving.

      Your point about aligning mathematics with music is very good.

  2. I love Angela’s comments. I have taught both English and French as a second language, with children and adults, and one of the most effective ways of teaching language is to include music, theatre, movement, etc

    What a wonderful group of musicians serving children in this way. Though, I have no doubt that they received so much back from the kids. I wish local municipalities would see the value of funding such programs!

    A most worthy Wednesday spotlight, Beth!

    1. Thank you, Joanna. When I learned about the program, I just *had* to contact them right away. I was delighted when Jay was readily willing to participate.

      Thanks also for sharing your experience in teaching language using music, theatre and movement as well.

  3. What a wonderful program! And I agree with Angela and Joanna – there is nothing like learning through music and movement. I worked with dyslexic kids of a long time, and though we didn’t use music, a lot of the same principles apply – learning in a multi sensory way is SO much more effective. And how better to include the sense then trough music? Great post, Beth. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, Susanna! There are so many ways that music and a multi-sensory approach can enhance the learning experience.

  4. This is SO cool! I always hate hearing how music falls by the wayside when it’s just as important as the other core subjects. It’s great seeing how this organization is trying to bridge that gap that too many people see (even though music is definitely related to other subjects). The Strad violins were built using the Golden Ratio. Various themes in music reflect what was going on at a specific point in history. It all goes together.
    I was thinking about how kids could be exposed to classical music these days through tv and movies and I’m not really sure there is much out there. I grew up watching Looney Tunes and Fantasia. I don’t know that either of those are as popular as they were because of all the other shows (and movies) that have come and gone over the years. Picking up on some of those classical themes I heard on Looney Tunes probably helped dissolve the ‘classical music is boring’ phrase for me and many others. Exhibit A.
    I really hope this idea catches on elsewhere!

    1. Thanks, Steph. Great example with the Strad violins!

      Looney Tunes, too — The Barber of Seville as portrayed by Bugs Bunny, the singing frog doing Figaro… Great stuff!

  5. Outstanding interview Beth! The Minnesota Sinfonia has such an incredible and well-planned program for kids. You know I am some such a proponent of exposing and teaching children music. I especially like the on children living in the inner city. What a gift and opportunity to change lives through such a great exposure. Our Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra has a Music in the Schools program, but sadly I don’t know the depth of the program. I just know it is a mission of the orchestra. Will have to learn more about my own city. This was a very exciting and inspirational interview. Thank you Beth and Jay. Your efforts are so important.

    1. Thank you, Pat. I agree, what the Sinfonia is doing is incredible — I am so glad I learned about it, and can tell others about it. I am so grateful to Jay for doing this interview, and especially for running this amazing program.

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