Oakland cellist recognized for bringing music to schools
By Lou Fancher
Oakland Symphony cellist Elizabeth Vandervennet's lifelong love of music was nurtured in public school, and her tireless work to continue to share that joy with children has earned her national recognition.
Vandervennet, 48, education coordinator for the symphony's Music for Excellence program, was one of five musicians in the country selected by the League of American Orchestras to receive the Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service.
"I'm part of the generation that benefited; I started with an instrument on loan from the school district. Without that, I might never have picked up a string instrument," she said.
The Music for Excellence program provides in-school music mentoring to 1,300 students at 19 public schools in the Oakland Unified School District. It also has four after-school programs; all are offered for free to students.
The award given by the Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes commitment to bringing music into the community.
As the program's coordinator, Vandervennet puts in about 20 hours a week visiting schools, teaching classes and handling administrative duties.
Half of Music for Excellence's budget is funded by individual donations and 28 percent by foundation grants.
"All of our instruction is offered to the community tuition-free, which is another reason I love this program," she says. "We work hard to raise the money: it's high-quality collaborative instruction for students at zero cost."She is quick to credit the other people involved in Music for Excellence, or MUSE.
"The people I work with at Oakland Symphony and through the MUSE program, any one of them could have won the award. I was just the one who got nominated. It's a team," she said.
Vandervennet has spent 17 years working side-by-side with public school teachers and in Music for Excellence after-school programs to bring music to students.
"I have never seen anyone who was more devoted to our mission than Beth," says Michael Morgan, Oakland Symphony music director and conductor.
"Running our education programs requires monitoring the quality, staying in the good graces of the various schools, and then dealing with all the human interactions between teachers, students and parents. Beth has to be a great musician with even greater people skills, and she does it all with tremendous grace," he said.
Vandervennet was raised in a Michigan suburb middle-class family that believed arts exposure was important. She also grew up in an era when public schools supported that idea with a strong music education component.
After playing in a youth orchestra, Vandervennet attended the University of Michigan and earned her Master of Music in Cello Performance from Carnegie Mellon University. As a member of the Oakland Symphony, Santa Rosa Symphony, Marin Symphony and as principal cellist in the Vallejo Symphony, she finds time to freelance with chamber ensembles.
But the rewards of working in the Music for Excellence program can't be matched, she said.
"Connecting with these kids, their eyes light up. When they could barely play something in October, and at the end of the year they can play all the way through a movement, they come alive," Vandervennet said.
"Art experiences give them more angles for their opinions and thoughts. They have more ways to hold up their crystal ball and reflect out. It affects how they are critical thinkers and move through the world," she said.
She is inspired when a 13-year-old thinks Beethoven is "cool" or relishes Mozart medleys as much as the Michael Jackson medleys she compiles for the orchestra.
She also respects the school teachers she works with.
"I've been so impressed by how open they are. They're welcoming to any idea I have. Coming together to make music, watching recognizable song emerge from chaos; it's amazing," she said.
The award includes a $2,500 grant to each musician and an additional $2,500 grant to recipients' home orchestras to support musicians' community service professional development.
"To be honest, I'll probably use the funds to replace my cello case, which is 15 years old and hanging together by a thread," Vandervennet said.