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“Today we’re working on flams!” declares Christopher, an unbounded source of pure energy who has taken the form of a charismatic third grader. “We have our technique test next week, and I need to work on my open and closed drum rolls.” He then demonstrates the double stroke (open roll) where he gradually speeds to a full roll before decelerating back to the original, metered, alternating hand movements.

Christopher is one of the newest members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Percussion Scholarship Program. Since its founding in 1995, PSP has offered intensive, weekly percussion instruction on full scholarship to Chicago youth in grades 4–12. Students are admitted through a competitive process that includes a provisional period, followed by an invitation to continue to participate through eighth grade, and a select group go on through high school. The program’s founders direct the group: CSO percussionist Patricia Dash and her husband, Lyric Opera Orchestra assistant principal percussionist Douglas Waddell. PSP exemplifies the mission of the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute: a long-term commitment to music education under the highest pedagogical ideologies, devoid of financial and socio-discriminatory barriers.

Students hail from neighborhoods across Chicago and reflect the city’s diverse population, including African American, Latin and Asian American students, among other ethnicities. The program meets throughout the year and provides each student with free instruments and lesson materials. The Percussion Scholars perform four times each season at Symphony Center as an ensemble and offer a free concert for Chicago Public School students as part of the CSO’s annual Chicago Youth in Music Festival. This season’s festival concert, which occurred Feb. 11 before an audience of 1,500 students at Orchestra Hall, featured a program that included everything from opera excerpts by Saint-Saëns to a trash-can drumline set to rapper Macklemore’s beats and lyrics.

Sean, 17, a veteran of the program, now helps coach some of the younger percussionists. “I really like teaching the first-year players.” Cracking a smile, he adds, “It reminds me how far I’ve come.” He works with Christopher on his flams and double strokes. (Flams and double strokes are among the rudiments, or building blocks, of percussion music.) Christopher, who clearly looks up to Sean, soaks up all the advice. In the past two seasons, Sean has appeared with PSP participants on an episode of NPR’s “From the Top,” was awarded the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s Young Artist Award, received a scholarship to Interlochen Arts Camp, was a finalist in the CSO’s Crain-Maling Foundation Young Artist Competition and was selected to join Carnegie Hall’s distinguished NYO2 orchestral program this summer.

Jenny is the mother of 12-year-old PSP student Mekhi. She and her husband do not mind all that the program asks of the family members of participants — rehearsals, recitals, potlucks, etc. — because she sees results in her son’s musical development and over-all work ethic. Their family lives in a duplex on the South Side, where they have set up a practice space for Mekhi in the top-floor living room — where the ambient sound is “minimized.” As Jenny was coming home from work recently, a neighbor stopped her and said, “Mekhi’s marimba solo is really coming along!”

Learning music fundamentals by trained and skilled instructors is an important step toward the development of new musicians. Good form, musical context, practice tips and accountability are all vital aspects of the formal training process. The advantage of having these lessons taught by world-class, industry leaders is readily apparent in the improvement and skill level of the students. Most musicians do not study with virtuosos until they are further along in their musical studies. Even then, it tends to be one-off lessons in order to prepare for a major audition or recital. PSP exhibits the benefits of having this level of training from the highest caliber of teachers from the very beginning of a musical career. Forty-eight weekends a year, with a strict, drill-sergeant-like adherence to the practice schedule, Patricia Dash and Douglas Waddell train all program participants.

The program’s intrinsic value is second to none (to say nothing of the “retail value”). This is not a hyperbolic statement; the Percussion Scholarship Program is an anomaly. Dissertations have been written about it; graduates go on to some of the most prestigious colleges and conservatories in the country; Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony are currently considering using the PSP model to start a similar program. To add to all this, its legacy also includes the college graduation of every program participant to date.

Note: PSP is currently accepting applications from third and fourth grade City of Chicago students for the 2019–20 season. PSP has one remaining public performance this season, Sunday, May 26 at 7 p.m., in Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall. To learn more, or download a membership application, visit cso.org/psp.

Benjamin Wise is programs assistant for the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute.

TOP: Three of the four finalists in the 2019 CSO Crain-Maling Foundation Young Artist Competition are current PSP members; sophomore Bridget Hemesath, sophomore and first runner-up Avi Gotskind and junior Sean Edwards are flanked by PSP founders Patricia Dash and Doug Waddell. | Todd Rosenberg Photography