And the beat goes on


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Founder of the InterSchool Orchestras of New York takes us on the nonprofit’s musical journey


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  • InterSchool Orchestras of New York students. Photo: Adam Hume



Annabelle Prager, 95, is still very much part of the nonprofit she started more than four decades ago. The InterSchool Orchestras of New York, launched in 1972 with 32 children, now comprises 350 musicians, ages 6 to 19, playing in seven orchestras and a band.

The idea was born after her son, who was 10 at the time, wanted to play the clarinet. Prager soon learned that budget cuts had trimmed orchestras from the school curriculum. “They used to call music a frill,” she explained. When she asked the head of the middle school at Collegiate, where her son attended, where the orchestra was, he replied, “Why don’t you start one?” And Prager, a professional artist and illustrator, did just that.

“We have two purposes. One is to find talent and develop it and the other is to bring music to areas that don’t have it,” Prager said of her mission. The organization is committed to providing financial aid and scholarships to students as well as free concerts in underserved communities.

On May 11, she will be honored at ISO’s largest fundraising event of the year, the Edward and Elaine Altman 45th Anniversary Concert at Carnegie Hall.

How involved in ISO are you still?

I’m very involved. I’m a very good idea person. For instance, last year, I met the person who was working with the Metropolitan Opera Guild. And I suggested that we do a project together so the children could learn about opera. So they helped us and our children all went to the opera and each group studied a composer and learned a lot about the opera from that country. So that was a very good thing. And it created some opera lovers because a lot of people don’t go to the opera; it’s expensive. I have another idea for next year. I think we should do ballet music.

The idea to create the organization came about because of your son.

What happened was my son, who was about 10 at the time, wanted to play the clarinet. And I went to a clarinet teacher and was told, “Not a good idea, because there’s no place for him to play.” And why? Because of budget cuts and other things that eliminated music. So why should he play the clarinet by himself at home? I was shocked because in my childhood there were bands and orchestras. So I went over to the school where he was and said, “Where is the orchestra?” And they said, “Why don’t you start one?” I loved music and always sang in choral groups. I was very naïve and called a meeting of music teachers and that wasn’t going to do anything. I was lucky because the head of a school turned up and said, “You have all the wrong people here. You want the heads of schools, not music teachers.” And I thought, “What a snob.” But he was right. And he did get some other heads of schools.

How did you get it started?

We started with a little orchestra. It sounded terrible, but it didn’t take long for it to get better. We separated the older children from the younger children. And then I got this idea to go into schools with our orchestra to show children what fun it was to make music, hoping they’d want to do it. And sure enough, they did. We called the schools and said we’d like to help. And since we offered our services free, they were delighted.

How did you find places to rehearse?

Let me just say, this has been a real problem from the very beginning. We have eight orchestras. The beginner orchestras have to be located throughout the city, so if you live on 18th Street, you don’t have to go all the way to Morningside Heights. So we have orchestras in various parts of the city, so little children can go to the orchestra that’s near them. Slightly older orchestras are also located in various places. When you get older, you can travel to go someplace. This has been something I spent a lot of time on, finding places. One of the things that’s hard about it is you have to find a place to store instruments and music. We started at the Church of the Heavenly Rest. Then moved to a place in Mount Sinai, a big hall in the nursing home. Then we moved to various places. We’ve been kicked out of more places because they wanted the space for something else. We’ve had a terrible time. Parents help us. There’s a place called the Liederkranz Club on 87th Street for German culture and this man was a member and arranged for us to rehearse there. We were there quite a long time. You’re committed to helping minorities, who you say are underrepresented in orchestras.

Talent should be developed in every cultural and economic group. Black people are not represented really very well in orchestras. There was this woman I knew who started something called the New York City Housing Authority Symphony, an orchestra for black people. And in her honor, I established a scholarship program, Janet Wolfe scholars. So every year, black children would have lessons and we developed quite a nice little group of children.

Tell us stories about your students who went on to play professionally.

One child was Korean and played the jazz violin. He was very successful and started playing all over Korea and made lots of records. We have a primary player in the Chicago Symphony. And one of the music critics at The New York Times is an ISO person. I started this in 1972, so there are really almost three generations of children. Children of students come. They’re very loyal. Parents mean a lot; they’re very grateful.

What are your future plans for ISO? Where do you want it to go?

We want to go into areas where there’s a need for music. We want to reach a population which is not getting enough music. For instance, we’re starting an orchestra in Queens. Usually, there are parents who want children to have the opportunity to make music and they say to us, “We’d like to have an orchestra in this area.”

www.isorch.org



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