Music brings joy and playing an instrument brings a sense of accomplishment along with that joy. But acquiring an instrument, maintaining it, taking lessons and other things that come with being part of a school music program are costly. That’s why, 20 years ago, an organization was formed to ensure no student who wishes to take instrumental music at the public schools will be left behind.
PING! (Providing Instruments for the Next Generation) currently serves approximately 120 students. It has grown from its original mission to put woodwinds, brass, percussion and string instruments into the hands of fourth graders, which is when students choose this path at District 97 in Oak Park and District 90 in River Forest.
Students qualify if they’re in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program, foster care, or have some financial strain on the household, according to PING! board President Ginger Yarrow.
Since 2002, the organization has set up mentoring relationships for PING! Middle-school students with OPRF High School student volunteers, who come to their former middle schools, Brooks, Julian and Roosevelt, to mentor a current student who plays the same instrument.
“They need those touch points,” Yarrow said. “It’s a mini-lesson every other week with a high-schooler. It’s social and support on the instrument, too, but also mentoring about the high school.”
OPRF junior Julian Bradford is mentoring for a third year at Julian Middle School. He has been playing trombone since fourth grade when he also benefited from PING!
“Going into middle school, I was planning on quitting music,” he said. “My mom convinced me to try it in middle school. Then we heard about this program and I got to meet my mentor. It was really impactful for me because he was really good and I was like, ‘I want to do that,’ so I kept going and now in high school I love it. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
As a junior, Bradford plays in both the top jazz and curricular bands at OPRF, Jazz Ensemble and Wind Ensemble. He is also a Marching Huskie. And this fall, he qualified for ILMEA, the Illinois Music Education Association’s statewide competition.
This year he is mentoring sixth grader Elizabeth Drobot who plays trombone in Julian’s Concert Band. Bradford directs the lesson to challenge Drobot, who said elementary school music was “really easy” for her. She played in the fifth-grade band in fourth grade.
Since 2003, PING! has also sent students to summer music camps. In 2018, 10 students were sent to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan and 27 attended the district 97 and 90 music camps/lessons at home during the summer with help from PING!
When the extra-curricular Latin Percussion Group was formed for high school students, PING! helped support that as well.
“Some might not stick with the music program, so we wanted to experiment outside the curriculum,” Yarrow said. “It gives more opportunities, more diversity to their experience.”
PING! helps fund middle-school music trips to Cleveland, some OPRF Marching Band expenses, and the annual high school jazz trip to Purdue. Through the Donna D’Oro Anderson Lifelong Music Fund, “extraordinary experiences” are granted. The first award went to four class of 2018 seniors for a stipend to get started at college. Now the fund is helping some take the OPRF performing arts trip to Europe in March.
PING! funds are raised through some grants but mostly by private donors. Local businesses, such as Kagan & Gaines Music and Austin Music, are also supportive.
The Oak Park Village Board honored PING! with a proclamation at an October meeting. But what really matters is the students.
One afternoon recently, a flautist mentor patiently went through the difference between 1/4 and 1/8 notes with her seventh-grade mentee. In another room, a high school saxophone player demonstrated, then the eighth-grader followed and faltered. “That’s a hard rhythm,” her mentor explained. The two kept working until the younger student nailed it.
“That was it. Perfect!” her mentor said.
Building relationships, providing musical enrichment and supplying instruments — a perfect medley.