This week has been a pretty big one for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra (QCSO).

It was honored Wednesday by the Iowa Arts Council Governor’s Arts Awards, and its annual Symphony Day was the first to feature the professional musicians (as opposed to its top students), under a new partnership with Carnegie Hall.

For the Governor’s Arts Awards (from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs), the QCSO earned a special recognition in the Arts Learning category. That honors an individual or organization that has increased access to arts learning experiences or enhanced arts learning outcomes for K-12 students in a significant or unique way over the award period (July 1, 2020, to November 1, 2022).

QCSO executive director Brian Baxter (center) received a Governor’s Arts Award (for arts learning) Wednesday, March 1 from David Schmitz, administrator of the Iowa Arts Council and Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

“This year’s honorees have been at the forefront of making Iowa a culturally vibrant state, with their creativity, dedication, entrepreneurial spirit and passion for the arts,” Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs Director Chris Kramer said in a Friday release. “Truly, we can measure the growth of the arts in Iowa through their accomplishments.”

“The Iowa Arts Council has long recognized excellence in the arts,” Iowa Arts Council Administrator David Schmitz said. “This year’s honorees demonstrate this excellence and set an inspiring example through their service and impact in their communities.”

QCSO executive director Brian Baxter said Friday their recognition (not the top award in the category) honors all the orchestra’s various music education programs (including the QC Youth Symphony ensembles, which serve about 250 students.

“The earlier part of it was really about our efforts during the height of COVID,” he said. “So all the digital education assets we built and were able to share with schools and teachers and students.”

“During the height of COVID, we worked hard to continue to deliver some manner of music education,” Baxter said.

“Another part of it is the way we totally reformed our private lesson program and hugely increased the number of students taking lessons,” he said, noting that has grown from 40 pre-COVID to 170 today. “It’s been really strong.”

The educational outreach also has grown with the QCSO’s group lesson program, which is available free for students through community partners like the Boys & Girls Clubs, Spring Forward and SBC Music Academy in Rock Island. That’s aimed to beginning string students, about four to six at a time, Baxter said.

“We’ve got plans to build on that in future seasons, but right now it’s only through a few community partners, at their sites and it’s been working pretty well,” he said.

The award recipient in the state arts learning category was Leon Kuehner, who has served the Iowa Alliance for Arts Education for 25 years, following decades of service as a high school band director in Hampton and president of the Iowa Bandmasters Association. “As a tireless advocate for the arts and arts education, Leon launched a successful mentoring program and helped envision the Iowa Fine Arts Standards,” the state release said.

Chelsea Sammons, the QCSO director of education and community engagement.

Baxter credited much of the growth in educational outreach to Chelsea Sammons, who last May was promoted to the QCSO director of education and community engagement. She had served as the Quad City Symphony Youth Ensembles (QCSYE) general manager since 2018 and is an oboe teacher in the private lesson program.

Any schools in the QC can get free tickets for students to attend Masterworks concerts, and for the first time Thursday, March 2, 50 QCSO musicians performed for 6,500 (primarily) 4th and 5th grade students in three Symphony Day sessions at the Adler Theatre.

A 42-year tradition

Traditionally, the QC Youth Symphony Orchestra performs at Symphony Day, which has been held for 42 years, Baxter said.

This also was the first year the QCSO partnered with Carnegie Hall’s “Link Up” program, which gives students in grades 3–5 the opportunity to sing and play an instrument in the classroom, and attend a free professional orchestra program.

Ernesto Estigarribia, the QCSO associate conductor and Youth Ensembles music director, led the QCSO at the 42nd-annual Symphony Day at the Adler Theatre.

There are about 100 orchestras participating worldwide (including in Rockford and Cedar Rapids, but not Chicago), and they can use program materials such as teacher guides, student materials, concert scripts, and concert visuals.

“It’s a really cool program,” Baxter said. “It’s really well put together. It’s really increased the interactive nature of the performance; there’s a lot more student participation. We have a narrator and different things happening, the orchestra members introduced different parts of the orchestra, the narrator and the conductor interact a lot.

“And there’s it’s a real diverse range of music from your more traditional, well-known classic works, with contemporary and new works,” he said.

Symphony Day served 6,500 area students (mostly 4th and 5th grades) throughout the day Thursday, March 2, 2023.

“The other cool thing about this new program is, they have it all built out from the production side, the education side,” Baxter said. “We’ve always provided materials in advance for the teachers, so they can help their classrooms learn the pieces in advance and they can prepare them for what they’re gonna hear, so that it’s a really impactful experience.”

Link Up also includes a professional development component for music teachers, where they can earn a continuing education credit at no cost, he noted.

The QCSO traditionally sends its members into local schools to talk about upcoming concerts.

Davenport Mayor Mike Matson spoke at Symphony Day at the Adler Theatre.

“So a lot of the musicians on stage have appeared at many of the various schools that are coming, so students are recognizing from them from that, the ones who teach lessons in the community, they’re recognizing them from there,” Baxter said. “So it’s really a nice connection point and getting to, you don’t often just in the middle of your school day, you get to go and see a great professional orchestra play.”

For more information on the orchestra education programs, click HERE.