It seems so simple now. “Five parents, one teacher, lots of clarinets sitting in closets”a slam dunk,” says Joan Winstein, president of the board of PING! (Providing Instruments for the Next Generation).

But it was just six years ago that two moms, Frances Figg and Theresa Sauvageau, came up with the idea of matching District 97 kids who wanted to play instruments, but couldn’t afford to, with instruments long since relegated to the backs of closets. Along with Camille Wilson White, George Bailey and Pam Risher, and Dist. 97’s instrumental music curriculum coordinator Ellen Holleman, they started PING! in 1998.

What began as a pilot program for 13 kids now serves 88 budding musicians in grades four through eight across all eight elementary schools. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunches can choose from a stash of about 100 instruments. In return, they sign strictly-enforced contracts promising to practice and show up to concerts.

PING!s six founders will be honored at a reception at the Oak Park Public Library on Sunday, April 10.

Back when Figg’s daughter was a fifth grader at Irving School, Figg went to see her first band and orchestra concert at the high school. She was struck by the lack of diversity on stage that “didn’t reflect the community,” she recalls. She figured there were kids who most likely weren’t participating because they couldn’t afford an instrument.

Lessons in the district’s instrumental music program, which start in fourth grade, are free, but instruments aren’t”they have to be rented at a cost that can run as high as $80 a month.

The next day over the phone, Figg and Sauvageau, also an Irving parent, decided to do something about it. They called a few friends, came up with a plan, and approached Holleman, who was thrilled with their idea.

“I’d felt guilty being in public education and not having a program for everyone. It was elitist. Now any student in Oak Park who wants to play music can. It’s fair; it changed my entire feeling about what I do,” says Holleman.

Supporters from inside and outside the community have made the plan work, says Winstein. The first year there was seed money from Dist. 97 and a grant from the Oak Park and River Forest Community Foundation. Later, PING! received $20,000 for instruments from the California-based Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, grants from the Oak Park Area Arts Council, and private donations of both instruments and money.

Winstein also points to the multifaceted, ongoing support of Austin Music Center owner Doug Cannon and to rental company American Music, which helps out with scholarships when the demand for a particular hot instrument”three quarter-size violins this year”exceeds the PING! supply.

Over the years, the organization grew to include a 13-member board and a number of additional programs. Last summer, funds paid for three kids to go away to music camp, and at least five more will go this year.

Also new this year is a mentorship program–the idea of three OPRF students who organized it–that pairs 20 high school musicians with 20 middle schoolers. In addition to twice monthly private lessons, mentors take the kids to concerts and share pizza parties.

It’s made “an enormous amount of difference to the middle school students” that goes beyond music instruction, notes Holleman. “They have a connection at the high school, a personal friend who cares about them, before they get there.”

And once PING! kids do get to high school, “[Music Department Chair] Scotty Jones and [teacher] Patrick Pearson make sure they have instruments,” says Winstein. Jones is a member of the PING! board.

Whether or not kids ultimately stick with their instruments, the experience of taking music lessons “changes lives in a positive way,” says Holleman. “This was a caring, brilliant concept by Frances and Theresa. And it has succeeded beyond our dreams.”

The PING! reception at the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St., will be Sunday, April 10 from 2 to 5 p.m. in the Veterans Room. The suggested donation is $20 for adults and $5 for students, and anyone dontating a band or orchestra instrument gets in free. Call PING! at 524-5830 ext. 7464 for more information or to volunteer.

“Laura Stuart

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