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Pre-K Students Get Take-Home Instruments Thanks to SLSO, volunteers

By Eric Dundon

In a typical year, Sarah Ruddy, SLSO Education Programs Coordinator, would visit early childhood classrooms across the St. Louis region for a Symphony In Your School-Junior visit and bring along a large box of instruments the children can share as they move, shake, and play along to a musical story.

But this year is anything but typical.

When Ruddy resumes in-school visits later this spring, as conditions permit, many things will change. Chief among them, children won’t be able to share instruments due to safety protocols during the era of COVID-19.

In this photo from March 2018, Pre-K students explore instruments before a concert tailored to them at Powell Hall. This year, with sharing instruments out of the question, the Symphony Volunteer Association and Mu Phi Epsilon music fraternity stepped in to create take-home instrument packages for children in the Symphony In Your School-Junior program.

But, as with countless other programs this season, the SLSO has adapted and created solutions so the St. Louis area’s youngest musicians can still reap the social-emotional benefits of making music with their peers.

For Ruddy, it was important for the Symphony In Your School-Junior program to adapt in order to continue to support participating teachers.

“I think that all of us who love music and love the SLSO are looking for ways to stay connected to our teachers and to inspire our youngest audiences this year,” she said.

The Symphony In Your School-Junior program was among the easiest programs to adapt, Ruddy said, in part because most of the children served still attend school in person.

But with sharing and reusing a single set of instruments out of the question, a large challenge remained: how to provide children with the instruments they need to participate while observing strict safety measures.

Fortunately, the SLSO’s Symphony Volunteer Association (SVA) and Mu Phi Epsilon music fraternity found a solution. A collaborative effort has achieved a tremendous result: each child in the participating early childhood classrooms will take home their very own package of homemade instruments.

The St. Louis Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon approached the SLSO in fall 2020, inquiring how its members could provide homemade instruments for early childhood classrooms. That set in motion a campaign to create maracas out of spoons, plastic eggs, and rice; sand blocks out of recycled pool noodles; and other low-cost percussion instruments appropriate for Pre-K students.

The SVA tackled the project from another angle. They rallied to collect ribbed tin cans to act as both a drum and a güiro—a hollow gourd instrument with notches that when scraped with a stick produces a ratcheting sound.

SVA members quickly gathered more than enough cans needed and even enlisted the help of friends and neighbors. SVA member Kent McNeil, who lives in a condo, said his 22-unit condo filled a basket with cans in just a few weeks.

Meanwhile, a team of SVA seamstresses led by Karen Nichols began to sew and fill bean bags with various items that produces different sounds, from rice to beans. They have also sewn scarves, which children use to dance and move along with music.

For Jim Schindler, chair of the SVA’s Instrument Playground committee, SVA members were eager to participate in the project.

“All of these activities have dual means to their ends,” Schindler said. “Not only do they result in the creation of musical instruments for the preschool/kindergarten childrens’ education program, but also provide opportunities for involvement of the SVA members whose regular SVA volunteer activities on behalf of the SLSO have been interrupted for months due to the pandemic.”

Schindler said that through the project, SVA members were able to reconnect with one another after months of not visiting Powell Hall. Nichols, who led the sewing efforts, said the behind-the-scenes work by SVA members has been gratifying.

“These seemingly small projects give the SVA members something tangible to do to help the Early Childhood programs,” she said.

SVA members support the SLSO across a broad range of programs, and particularly relish their involvement in the SLSO’s support of teachers and nurture of young musicians through programs including Express the Music, Picture the Music, and the Instrument Playground.

Efforts culminate when SLSO staff and musicians connect with teachers and young musicians, fostering a love of music with the next generation.

“During this time when teachers are facing incredible challenges, it’s more important than ever that we support them,” Ruddy said.

The SLSO has adapted much of its programming for the 2020/2021 season and added several virtual education experiences, from real-time conversations with musicians about their instruments to an on-demand education concert experience to the creation of a robust library of at-home activities. Learn more at


Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager of the SLSO.


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