Ears Wide Open

From the beer-splashed honky-tonks to the ornate choir lofts, the music that flows through East Nashville is as diverse as the people who call it home.
     Musicians of all stripes find their muse on the East Side. Rock & roll is prevalent, as are country, jazz, and hip-hop. Blues, bluegrass, and dance tunes permeate, as do folk, gospel, and the “Pride of the East Side,” Stratford High’s marching band. The hills are alive, as the song goes, and somewhere within this melodious community may just lie the nugget that Walter Bitner is after.
     Bitner is director of education and community engagement for the Nashville Symphony, and the job he took in November 2014 has recently sprouted in a whole new direction. Bitner is charged with overseeing a Symphony initiative known as Accelerando, a music education program that will technically kick off in January and become fully functioning by September 2016. It’s designed to prepare gifted young musicians in grades 5-12 of diverse backgrounds to pursue music at the collegiate level and beyond.
     “American orchestras today do not typically reflect the rich diversity of their communities,” Symphony president Alan Valentine said in a news release announcing the initiative. “The ultimate goal of the Accelerando program is to build a pipeline of talented musicians who will form the next generation of American orchestra musicians. With support and leadership from our community partners, the Nashville Symphony will expand opportunities for students from communities currently underrepresented in our orchestras and will help them reach their full potential.
     “The Nashville Symphony’s mission is fueled by the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to experience music through both listening and learning. We are beyond thrilled that we will be able to provide students from underrepresented communities in Middle Tennessee with access to high-level, intensive training, and we hope to make a meaningful impact on our community and, ultimately, on orchestras across the country. With the launch of this program, we’re looking ahead to a strong future for both Nashville and the communities across the country and around the world that will benefit from it.”
     Bitner and his staff, along with the program’s four community partners, are seeking young students who will form the foundation of the program’s first year, and they’re concentrating their search on students who come from typically underrepresented communities as they relate to symphony orchestras — communities such as East Nashville, Bitner says.
     “We hope to reach into East Nashville as well as other parts of the community,” he says. “The main goal of the program is to find students who will ultimately become professional orchestra musicians so our orchestra and other orchestras in the United States will look like the communities that they serve. East Nashville has a quite a diverse population, and I would hope we would find students and families there interested 
in this program.”
     Since its founding 69 years ago, the Nashville Symphony has held at its core the importance of music education and community engagement. It now reaches more than 100,000 adults and children each year through various programs, including the Curb Youth Symphony, school ensembles, and after-school programs, among others. But prior to Accelerando, programs have not been targeted specifically toward ethnic communities.
     “Our mission is to bring music to every part of the community, and we do bring a lot of programs,” Bitner says. “The focus of so many of our programs is kind of a broad reach affecting a lot of people. And I think it’s important that the Symphony is also touching these students who have [recognized] that music is not just an important part of their life, but that it’s a vocation for them, and that the Symphony is there to provide a resource that no one else can provide.
     “It’s very important for the Symphony that we are supporting those parts of the community that traditionally are not seen as being part of the community the Symphony serves — really for our continuation as an institution. This is an issue not just for the Nashville Symphony but for orchestras all over the country.”
     One that has particularly recognized the significance of providing music education to a minority population is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which implemented its Talent Development Program more than 20 years ago. The TDP identifies and develops African American and Latino classical music students who are musically gifted and motivated, preparing them for careers as professional musicians. 
     “It’s been very successful,” Bitner says of the Atlanta program. “A lot of their graduates are getting into major conservatories around the country and winning competitions and beginning to audition for symphony orchestras. My staff and I researched, visited, and met with their director. We have learned a lot from them as we’ve been designing the Accelerando program. Of course, there are differences in Nashville and Atlanta, and Accelerando will take on its own character as we grow and learn what works for our community.”
     Through a partnership with Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Conexión Américas, and Choral Arts Link, Accelerando will kick off in early 2016 with informational meetings for prospective students and their families. Auditions will be held in March and April for students in grades 4-8, and provisional acceptances will be announced in May. Trial lessons for provisionally accepted students will begin in June before the inaugural Accelerando class starts in September. The plan is to enroll six students in the first year, and then add five each ensuing year until the class is capped at 24 students 
by 2021.
     Accelerando participants will receive year-round instruction from Nashville Symphony musicians as well as from qualified local instructors, and will have annual solo recital and ensemble performance opportunities. The program will provide summer music activities, such as workshops and camps, and students and their families will also receive guidance and counseling on every aspect of preparing for a career as a professional musician. Additionally, participants and their families will be eligible for complimentary tickets to Nashville Symphony Classical Series performances.
     “The idea is they would stay with us until they graduate from high school,” Bitner says. “The goal is to give them the lessons and other aspects of musical training, anything necessary for them to get into music school at the 
college level.”
     Bitner has been around the rostrum when it comes to performing, conducting, and teaching. He conducted his first orchestral concert at age 21, leading members of The Florida Orchestra, and has led hundreds of student performances in the years since. He came to the Nashville Symphony after teaching for seven years at the Nashville School of the Arts, and prior to that was conductor and founder of the Music City Youth Orchestra. Throughout his career, he has helped guide students from 
all backgrounds.
     “My experience showed me that there is no discrimination when it comes to how much musical talent people have. It’s really across the board,” Bitner says. “My students from all diverse backgrounds had talent. But what I saw was, with music, training is such a huge component of a musician’s capacity as an artist. But there are inequalities in how people are able to develop that talent. Those inequalities often fall along cultural, economic, and ethnic diversity.”
     In the meantime, the search is underway throughout Nashville’s ethnic communities.  There are certainly reasons for East Nashville to get a look-see, based on its diverse makeup and its propensity for nurturing young musicians. In addition to Stratford High, for instance, strong music and band programs are also part of East Nashville High and Meigs Middle Magnet schools, among other places. In addition, institutions such as W.O. Smith Music School and Choral Arts Link have students from the East Side enrolled in 
their programs.
     “We will be putting out our messages about this program to as many parts of the (Middle Tennessee) community as we can, to find these children and their families,” Bitner says. 
     “I know these children are here in the communities, it’s just a matter of finding them.” 
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