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Instruments of Success 

Their bows held erect, the orchestra's musicians sit tall and tight in their chairs awaiting the drop of Betty Perry's baton. Perry, the conductor, is just 5' tall, making her barely visible through the sea of music stands, people, charts and instruments arranged in front of her. Like sprinters coiled in their blocks, the musicians strain to catch Perry's short-armed command. One player flinches, jumps the gun and out of force of habit, runs through an opening progression. The rest of the bows fall in unison and the false start earns a faint scowl from the Bronx-born Perry. A classically trained violist, Perry once played Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. Dressed in a black sweater and dark olive slacks, Perry is an unwavering force at the center of everything. After everyone is settled and collected, she wraps her baton sharply against a black metal music stand, and the bows and instruments rise back into position. The room's a vacuum now and on tip toes Perry scans the musicians, waves her baton and thrusts the orchestra into a version of"Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Betty Perry is the conductor of the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, a string only orchestra made up of four groups, A through D. Today she's directing the beginners, orchestra D. Some of the musicians are only five years old. Sitting in their metal chairs, their legs dangle high above the floor and the instruments they play are hopelessly tiny. Others tower high over their smaller peers--and over Betty Perry for that matter. But they're not kids--they're parents. And they're struggling to play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" alongside their children.

click to enlarge Betty Perry is the conductor and instructor behind the MYO.

Perry created the orchestra in 1995 as part of an outreach program for families living in the tough neighborhoods surrounding The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Today it includes nearly 130 children and parents who pay $84 per semester for a weekly 30-minute private lesson, group rehearsals and recitals. Like other youth orchestras in the area, Perry's produces some fine musicians. But coaxing parents and their children to endure the agony of learning a stringed instrument? The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra is the only game in town.

The concept of children and parents sharing music lessons came to Perry in the early 1980s. At the time, she was developing a stringed instrument orchestra for kindergarteners at Auntie Mame's, a child development center on the city's east side. Most of the children were African-American and came from poor single parent homes. Just like Perry had.

But music helped Perry escape the ghetto, and shaped the rest of her life, too. It has yet to fail her. Perry's own music education came from playing in community youth orchestras led by teachers intent on leveling the field with music. "You either knew how to play or you didn't," Perry says. "There was no fudging it." The music transcended race, class and income. Performing for others meant developing the discipline to practice, which in turn led to a disciplined approach to learning, period. Perry's teachers also kept the atmosphere fun and nurtured a natural camaraderie that helped the children feel comfortable enough to communicate freely.

Perry wanted to recreate that same experience at Auntie Mame's. She also wanted to force parents to help their children learn.  "Our education system allows parents to abdicate their responsibility to teach their children," she says. Perry taught the kindergarteners at the center each day, and held a weekend session so parents could see what their children were learning. But instead of letting the parents simply sit in on Saturdays, Perry showed them how to keep rhythm for their children as they practiced, then made them guest conductors for Saturday practices on a rotating basis. The music began to pull parents and children together. When she asked parents if they'd like to learn to play an instrument, the offer was quickly accepted.

Perry also taught a wildly diverse group of students in Kokomo, Crawfordsville and around Indianapolis to supplement her income. Some came from low-income inner-city homes, others from rural families. Some were the offspring of parents who taught at Wabash College.

But the approach was constant. The music mattered, but it was only a vehicle, not the journey itself. "The discipline of learning an instrument teaches kids that there is a right way to learn to do things," Perry says. "They learn that whatever you put into something is what it will give you back." Bringing parents and children together with music helped them discover how to communicate and develop a "learning style" that works best for them. "What we look for as we teach is the best way to give information to these kids," she says. "Once we help them figure out their learning styles, their other academics go through the roof." 

click to enlarge The students get out their instruments in preparation for the lesson.

Exhausted from bouncing around central Indiana, and hoping to focus on inner city children, Perry approached the Children's Museum in 1994 when she heard about the Focus Academy program. Among other art courses, it included a keyboard class - but nothing else. Perry pitched a proposal based on her Auntie Mame's orchestra, joined the museum and in 1995, began developing the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra.  The program's approach attracted entire families almost immediately.

The family experiences she's creating now are far from Perry's own. Born in 1948, Perry was one of nine children and grew up in a notoriously violent Bronx neighborhood, Ft. Apache.  "I was the only one who knew about all the other kids in my family," says Perry of her eight half-brothers and sisters. "We didn't all grow up together." When she was five, Perry and her brothers were sent to orphanages. At six, she moved in with a foster family, and a year later, returned to her mother. By the time she was nine years old, Perry and her brothers had moved in with her grandmother.

Raised a Baptist, Perry sang at church, at home and in school. When she was 11, she was chosen to lead the choral portion of her sixth-grade graduation ceremony. But when Perry arrived late, another girl was awarded the honor. Perry was furious. "It was like I was punked in front of the class," she says. "And you couldn't allow that to happen because it was a sign of weakness." It was also the beginning of a heated rivalry that motivated Perry through high school. "The girl's name was Margie Kinley," Perry says. "I still haven't forgotten her, because I owe her my life."

When Kinley picked up the viola in middle school, so did Perry. They met frequently in musical competitions, intense battles Perry was determined to win. "She was never able to touch me," Perry says. "That's how hard she drove me to study and practice." The rivalry-induced dedication paid off as Perry's skills grew and took her into the Bronx borough-wide orchestra and beyond.

Her music teachers also nurtured Perry's talent and burning desire. Recognizing Perry's ability, one teacher, Nathan Nathanson, ordered her to join the Bronx Borough Orchestra. Led by Frieda Hollander, the orchestra was composed of junior high students from throughout the borough. "I didn't want to go to rehearsals at seven in the morning," Perry says. "But Mr. Nathanson told me I was going." At the rehearsal Perry sat in the bleachers while the junior high orchestra played Handel's The Water Music Suite. "I had never heard music like that before in my life, and it was so gorgeous," she says. "I just sat there and cried."

By high school, Perry was accomplished enough to audition for the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts and LaGuardia High School. She chose Walton High School at the urging of Hollander.

Now 83, Hollander lives in Manhattan. She retired in 1989. Perry's musical skills were obvious -- but Hollander saw something else in her, too. Perry was a natural leader. The orchestra Hollander led included students from far more affluent neighborhoods, yet Perry always found her way out front. "Betty was a very strong minded and determined young girl," Hollander says. "Her leadership qualities always won out."

click to enlarge All the instruments in the MYO are string instruments.

Hollander also taught music at Walton, and persuaded Perry to attend, promising she'd teach Perry everything she knew. When Perry arrived for her first rehearsal, Hollander told her she wouldn't need the viola. "She told me I'd never play the viola in her orchestra," Perry says. Instead, Perry was "forced" to master the violin, cello, bass, French horn, oboe and bassoon. "She didn't say 'Try to learn this instrument,'" Perry says. "She said 'Go learn it.' She knew I had the ability to do it, and that faith empowered me," Perry says.

The orchestras Perry played in took her to performances in Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and occasionally to performing with children from very wealthy families. An entrée into a foreign world, it was unlike anything she'd known. "There really aren't words to describe how I felt," she says. It was apparent music would be Perry's ticket out of the ghetto. But constant practicing isolated her from friends and family, and created the impression that she was better than them. Though everyone in her family wanted out, most knew they'd never leave. "I had a cousin who escaped through education and took another cousin who wanted to go," she says. "And today there's incredible animosity." Though she knows where each of her siblings is today, she says her family is not especially close.

Perry studied music education at the Mannes College of Music and helped form the Harlem Symphony Orchestra. There she met Edward Perry, a young trumpet player from Indianapolis. The two married, and in 1969, Perry gave birth to the first of two children. Determined to create the family structure she never had, she dropped out of college without earning a degree and devoted herself to her children. By 1978, the Perry's left New York for Indianapolis, hoping they'd find a better place to raise a family.

But by 1981, Perry was looking for a job. Unemployed and with few "business" skills, Perry turned to music. She decided she'd try to develop a string-only orchestra program at one of the city's daycare centers and went through the phone book, hoping to find one interested in her idea. Only Auntie Mame's would hear her out.

Though still associated with the museum, in January 2005, Perry and the orchestra joined the Philharmonic Orchestra of Indianapolis. According to general manager Jeff Maess, it was a perfect fit. "We're really doing the same things, only with different age groups," he says. "The 'Phil' was created to give adults an opportunity to play music, but the expectations aren't that they'll become professional musicians."

Perry doesn't really know how she came up with the idea of offering lessons to parents. All she knows is she wanted music to bring families together not drive them apart. Watching this orchestra D, it's easy to see how that happens.

The orchestra includes 13 children and 10 parents. Because the entire orchestra is made up of beginners, "orchestrating" movements and passages to even a simple song is practically impossible. Together the orchestra saws its way through "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in a series of fits and starts until the song lurches to an end. As they play, Perry begins to smile.

click to enlarge The Metropolitan Youth Orchestra teaches youth how to play classical instruments in Indianapolis.

She's heard the nursery song played countless times before, often rendered in the same shaky manner, yet greets its end with an upbeat "Okay!" After a few more versions, Perry leads the orchestra into a rhythm exercise peppered with tricky notes. "Now watch out - this line is loaded with traps," says Perry. "Loaded," confirms 5-year old violinist Justice Vaughn. Everyone laughs at Vaughn's perfectly timed, if unwitting, bit of comedy because it relieves the pressure of trying to play very difficult instruments with decidedly mixed results. None laugh harder than the parents.

The music is the pretense for brining the families here. But as it does with Perry, and anyone who lets it, music helps parents and children act as peers who laugh and trade pointers and share a common bond. It's something special that may serve each in the years ahead. As they sit erect, side-by-side on the metal chairs, instruments at their chins, the parents and their children look like past and present versions of the same being and for the next two hours, seem almost like one.

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Mike Knight

Mike Knight

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Mike Knight is a writer, video producer and the creator of Sky Blue Window, a collaboration with dedicated folks from WFYI, Butler University, Franklin College, CICF, wife Michelle and so many people who care about creativity in Central Indiana. He has received several Society of Professional Journalists awards,... more

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