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Changing the Lives of Chicago Youth One Snare Drum at a Time

The Percussion Scholarship Group offers intensive weekly percussion instruction to students on a full scholarship basis.

In 1995 Chicago Symphony Orchestra percussionist Patricia Dash had an idea. With the help of husband Douglas Waddell, a percussionist with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Percussion Scholarship Group was created. This music program offers free lessons to Chicago youth and has become a very successful model for urban music programs.

The program is paid for entirely by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and participants are given their own marimba and snare drum to practice on. Removing these financial barriers is key to its success, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Percussion Scholarship Group is that Doug and Patricia don’t seek out current musicians – in fact, it’s almost the opposite.

Doug told us, “We want to find a student who’s probably never played and doesn’t read music. We show them how to practice and when they learn how to practice, they also learn how to study. Their grades go up and they learn to focus and use their time wisely. And those are the kids who are the most successful with us.”

The commitment to participate is not to be taken lightly. Chicago students in grades 3-12 are selected through teacher nominations, a rigorous application, and a personal interview process. Acceptance into the group is only the beginning – all members are required to practice at least 45 minutes daily. Around concert time, weekend practice sessions run late into the night.

Eric Goldberg, who appeared with the group on From the Top in 2009, remembers “In your first year, the teachers are really, really hard on you and make sure you take the group really seriously.”

Group member Lucia Leon says that everyone has a story about almost quitting, but sticking with it has changed their lives. “I was the most shy person in the universe! In rehearsal Mr. Waddell was always yelling, ‘Play louder, Lucia!’ Finally after years of not talking to anybody, little by little I started coming into myself and playing louder and talking to people.”

For most, the biggest thrill is the music. Doug and Patricia often bring in composers to create more challenging pieces because the group is excelling so quickly. “The kids will really work hard if they love the music.” “When we hit that first note, it’s like a shiver goes down my spine. I feel like we’re all in sync,” says Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Joshua Jones.

“It’s a comfort zone, a constant. I used to move a lot, but my music was one thing that I always had. Other parts of my life may have been changing a lot, but I always had this refuge,” Lucia says.

Many members of the Percussion Scholarship Group have appeared on From the Top over the years, including Jack Kent Cooke Young Artists Marcelina Suchocka, John Ringor, and Joshua Jones.

The Percussion Scholarship Group has performed at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, performs twice annually at Symphony Center and has appeared at Macy's Day of Music, DePaul University, the Chicago Cultural Center, and as soloists with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as part of CSO Youth Concerts, the Kraft Family Matinee Series and Welcome Yule! Concerts.