Dan Trahey helps make OrchKids a national model for helping disadvantaged kids

Program that puts musical instruments into hands of schoolkids inspires similar programs in Austria, Brazil and Iraq

  • Dan Trahey, 35, works with BSO ORCHkids students at Mary Ann Winterling E.S.
Dan Trahey, 35, works with BSO ORCHkids students at Mary Ann… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
January 25, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Dan Trahey plays the tuba. He's played it all his life, and he takes his instrument with him everywhere, even though it's been years since he's performed regularly with an orchestra. Trahey's affinity for the unwieldy, decidedly uncool contraption says a lot about him.

The tuba partly explains how Trahey has helped make OrchKids — the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program that puts musical instruments into the hands of schoolchildren regardless of their ability — into a national model for teaching life skills to youngsters in impoverished neighborhoods.

There's just one tuba in every symphony orchestra, so Trahey had to go it alone, forging a path that's slightly different from the one taken by his fellow musicians. He also had to shun the spotlight while helping all the other instruments in the orchestra sound their best.

"The tuba isn't a big solo instrument, but it's the foundation of any ensemble," Trahey says, "lt plays the tone that roots the orchestra and gives the other instruments something to build on."

It makes sense, then, that for Trahey, OrchKids' single most valuable lesson isn't providing instruction in playing an instrument. It's teaching kids how to be good citizens.

"In my mind, an orchestra is the perfect metaphor for a functioning society," says Trahey, 35.

"You have to be there, and you have to put your best foot forward all the time. But, you also have to know that we're all interconnected. We're bad at this in America, where we're all bred to be soloists. We create our own little worlds, and that's really dangerous."

Already the oldest and largest of the more than six dozen programs of its kind in the U.S., OrchKids is about to become more influential. The BSO announced this month that philanthropists Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker have pledged their second gift of $1 million, enabling OrchKids to expand from five city elementary schools serving 750 pupils to eight schools enrolling 1,600 by the 2018-2019 school year.

OrchKids is the brainchild of the symphony's music director, Marin Alsop. She adapted a Venezuelan program known as "El Sistema" to fit Baltimore and got it off the ground with $100,000 of her own money.

But Alsop has a demanding international career and spends long periods out of town, so she needed someone to run OrchKids on a daily basis.

Most organizations have just one leader, but Trahey is far more than just the maestra's second baton. He's right up there giving the beat with Alsop, matching her dream for dream.

"Dan is a passionate leader who values his role not only as a musician, but as a citizen of the world," Alsop wrote in an email. "He is a person who will advocate relentlessly for those who have less, and is fearless in their defense."

For instance, Trahey told a reporter in 2011 that he hoped OrchKids would someday play Carnegie Hall. When Alsop later heard what Trahey had said, her eyes widened, perhaps envisioning what such a project would cost. Then she said gamely, "If Dan wants to go to Carnegie Hall, then I'm sure that Carnegie Hall is in our future."

It was Trahey who visited the White House in November to pick up an award from first lady Michelle Obama that was given to just 12 youth programs nationwide. It's Trahey who has been consulted about launching programs similar to OrchKids in several U.S. cities, plus Austria, Brazil and even Iraq.

"OrchKids has become a model program that people around the world want to know about," says Jesse Rosen, president of the New York-based League of American Orchestras. "Dan is not only responsible for executing the program, but he brings his own vision to the work. He's a zealot, a real crusader."

Trahey interacts personally with every kid he can, every day he can. During a break in an OrchKids lesson, Trahey might pick up one of his students and playfully turn him head over heels. He'll grab another kid's nose, hold out his hand to a third and ask for a piece of candy.

He'll also make home visits to find out why one of his students has missed a rehearsal. And when a parent of one of his students fell ill, Trahey provided sleepover service for the children.

Mateen Milan met Trahey in 2007, when he was 10 years old. Trahey was getting the boy a scholarship to study the clarinet and later the bassoon at the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute.

"Dan introduced himself," says Mateen, now 16. "He made me look him in the eye, and he made me shake his hand. He gave me the same respect that I gave him. From the beginning, he treated me as an equal."

If Trahey relates so well to his students, it may be partly because he also grew up without much money in Traverse City, Mich. For an entire winter, his family stored perishables on the deck because they couldn't afford a refrigerator.

"My brother and I always had enough to eat," he says. "We were financially poor, but we also were the most cared-for children I knew."

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