Annual Report Highlight: Play

July 1, 2021

West Michigan Symphony Orchestra

A trip to the symphony usually doesn’t involve getting to play along or being showered with confetti from the ceiling, but that’s what hundreds of local elementary students have experienced each year for nearly two decades as part of Link Up.

The Link Up program is run locally by the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra in partnership with Carnegie Hall. It provides a beginning music education for third through fifth graders and is supported in part by grants from the Community Foundation. Students learn about instruments, how to read music, and how to play the recorder. In a typical year, members of the orchestra visit classrooms and at the spring symphony concert, students bring their recorders and play along.

According to Karen VanderZanden, orchestra director of education, the decision to cancel last year’s concert because of the pandemic was necessary but painful. “Kids are usually very excited to participate in a concert,” she said. “They can see why live music is so wonderful.” But despite the challenges of going online, Karen and other program leaders found creative ways to keep students engaged. Recorders were temporarily swapped out for bucket drums and other percussive instruments. Lessons, activities, and classroom visits with musicians moved to virtual spaces. The annual spring concert was recorded and posted online for anyone to enjoy.

“There are so many inherent benefits to learning music,” said Karen. “Studies show connections to things like higher GPAs, lower dropout rates, and learning about teamwork. It’s rewarding to see students excited about how music can be a part of their lives. This year has been a challenge, but I’m glad we didn’t give up.”