Appearing before the Flagler County School Board last week, Cheryl Tristam, director of the Flagler Youth Orchestra, wanted to share a story from her visit that day at Wadsworth Elementary. Tristam, Sue Cryan, the orchestra’s artistic director, and two advanced student-members of the orchestra had been on the annual fall recruiting tour through Flagler schools, ahead of what will be the Youth Orchestra’s 14th season.
“When we arrived at Wadsworth I was told that one of the teachers there is a former FYO student,” Tristam said.
“No way!” Colleen Conklin, one of the school board members, said.
“Her name is Rachel Potter,” Tristam continued, “and when we did the presentation to those fourth graders, she spoke on behalf of the Flagler Youth Orchestra, saying what the program meant to her. She still plays violin in her church, and that she doesn’t think her life would be where it is right now if she didn’t have this music. So that was kind of a big deal to hear it today.”
What was once an exaggeration is now an understatement: since its inception in 2005 as a district-supported program that provides free, after-school music education to students in all Flagler schools (8 years old and up), the Flagler Youth Orchestra has been in the lives of an entire generation through its string orchestras: many thousands of students have enrolled through the years, with some 400 enrolling each fall, though not as many make it to the finish line in May.
The nearly dozen seniors who graduated out of the program last year–each one receiving a $200 scholarship from the program–spent seven years on average with the organization, making it up the scales of its five different orchestras, each reflecting a different skill level. They’d all performed in most of the 39 full-scale concerts held three times a year at the Flagler Auditorium in the past 13 years. And members of the Harmony Chamber Orchestra, the most advanced of the five, have performed many more times in other concerts around town, or in the orchestra’s quartet, which has become sought after by civic and government organizations as–well, yes, just don’t tell the composers–background music to banquets, galas and the like.
Conklin’s own children, now grown men, had been in the program in its earliest years, all three of School Board member Andy Dance’s children were in the program until they joined other activities in middle school, and Tristam’s daughter, is a graduate of the orchestra (and the district: like Potter, she, too is a teacher, but in another time zone).
So far this year, 225 returning students have signed up, with the Open House scheduled for Wednesday (Sept. 5) at 5:30 p.m. at the Indian Trails Middle School cafeteria, when around 175 students additional are expected to sign up. (You can enroll easily here.) Students meet Mondays and Wednesdays in one-hour sessions at Indian Trails Middle School, with classes scheduled between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m., based on family preferences.
Unique among its likes in Florida, the program is free except for instrument costs, though no student is ever turned down if families can’t afford an instrument: the program’s fund-raising provides instrument scholarships. Every year, about a third of the students can borrow a free instrument for the year, much as they would a school-issued computer. Students may choose between four string instruments: violin, viola, cello or base.
At the open house, students and their families will see brief performance, meet the organization’s six teachers, and hear all about the logistics of the program, transportation options (the school district makes buses available from most schools to Indian Trails for students enrolled in the program) and, for excitement’s sake, talk of coming concerts. The first full-scale concert of the season is scheduled for Nov. 7 at the Flagler Auditorium. (See the year’s schedule of classes and concerts here.)
“I’m so grateful to my colleagues on the school board and the superintendent to continue to support such a program,” Conklin said last week. She remembered the couple of years when the program was in doubt, as were so many programs during the down-curtain years of the Great Recession. It pulled through, with the orchestra increasing its own fund-raising efforts to what is now an annual commitment of $19,000, a fifth of the program’s budget, to ensure its survival. “I hope that the message is loud and clear, just the fact that it was on consent tonight alone is a strong endorsement I think that the support the school district has for this program, and the tremendous impact it’s had on our community has been immesurable.” (The consent portion of the agenda consists of collected and approved in bulk, without discussion.)
“I appreciate you saying that because you did traumatize me five years ago,” Tristam told Conklin.
“Mind you, you survived the downturn in the economy and some of the heavier cuts that districts across the state really felt–the pressure to cut programs like music and art. It’s a testament I think to the commitment and the quality of the program as well,” Conklin said.
“We never take this for granted by the way,” Tristam said. “It still marvels me that Flagler County can say that we offer something like this in the community to a child that wants to play music and not be charged for it, and if they need help with an instrument, that they have access to one. So we’re very, very proud of that.”
For questions or enrollment, call FYO Director Cheryl Tristam at 386/503-3808 or write her by email here. Disclosure: Tristam is married to FlaglerLive’s editor.