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People young and old lined Los Angeles’ city blocks waiting for food handouts. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, a young Ernst Katz—son of Russian immigrants who by his teens had made a name for himself as a concert pianist—believed this depressed and hungry city was also hungry for the uplifting power of music. In 1937, amidst these dismal days, Katz summoned his passion for the importance of early musical training and launched the Jr. Philharmonic Orchestra, giving young people in Southern California a place to go and a challenge to enrich their minds and lives. His first young musicians staged their debut performance on May 15, 1938, and remarkably, the now 92-year-old Katz has almost never missed a practice or performance since. One of the longest-standing youth orchestras in the country—and the only orchestra of its age with its original conductor—the JPO has spawned musical talents populating the greatest symphonies across the world. Furthermore, the more that is learned scientifically about the cognitive benefits of music training, the greater Katz’s gift to his young musicians appears to be.
Over the years, springtime in California has come to mean the JPO’s anniversary Concert Spectacular, the culmination of its concert season, featuring the fun-filled Celebrity Battle of Batons, a star-studded competition allowing many of Hollywood’s best-loved characters to take a turn directing the group. From grand baton-waving to silly walks to break-away tuxedos, the guest conductors pull out all the stops, the contest builds, the audience delights and the young musicians appear to bloom. And thus another season begins for this widely acclaimed group.
Composed of more than 100 members from ages 12 to 25, today’s orchestra hails from a variety of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, some traveling over 100 miles for each practice and performance. The prototype of a community volunteer, Katz personally funds the orchestra, providing the music, often the instruments and even concert dress for JPO members who need them—without government subsidies, without soliciting contributions and without charging his young musicians audition or membership fees. Over the years more than 10,000 of his young people have performed for hundreds of thousands of audience members. Interspersed among the regular schedule of performances have been numerous benefit concerts for charitable organizations, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the host organization.
Through the years, many who have lauded Katz’s gifts to the community have pointed out that in a world of drug abuse, gangs and other negative pressures, he facilitates a preoccupation with something positive. At the same time, he is fostering another profound benefit—helping develop the minds and thinking skills of his young musicians far beyond their music training.
Since the mid-1970s, research on the effects of music training on the brain, particularly in children, has burgeoned. A multitude of studies from diverse institutions report the same news—that music training, especially in the younger years, generates neural growth and greater cognition, especially in areas of visual-spatial, verbal and mathematical performance, a long-lasting effect many researchers call long-term enhancement.
Dr. E. Glenn Schellenberg of the University of Toronto at Mississauga explains that music training involves experiences that positively affect cognition, requiring kids to pay attention for longer periods, to read notations, to memorize passages and to master fine motor skills.
On a biological level, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug of Harvard’s Medical
School, in concert with colleagues both in America and at Heinrich-Heine
University in Germany, found structural and functional differences in
brains of adult musicians when compared to brains of non-
Early criticisms of research examining the academic impact of music
training raised the chicken-or-the-egg question: Do children with music
training score higher on verbal tests, for instance, because those with
better verbal skills already are more likely to take music lessons? Or
does the music training itself make the difference?
Similarly, Dr. K. Yoshimura of the University of Texas investigated
the correlation between music and arts training and test scores on the
ACT, SAT and other standardized tests. Across all socio-economic groups,
students immersed in arts education scored higher than their peers. Furthermore,
the longer the training, the greater the increase in test scores. Thus,
despite other elements of their background, students with arts education
have an advantage.
As tightening budgets over the past decades have forced many schools
to cut their music and arts programs, researchers have appealed to the
government to help stem the loss for children of venues for music training.
In a 1997 presentation before the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health
and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, Dr Frances Rauscher
of the University of Wisconsin discussed her research in collaboration
with Gordon Shaw of the University of California at
Thus, we can see in broader terms the scope of Katz’s gift. He provides an important venue for young people of all backgrounds. His students garner not only the joys of music for its own sake, but also the likelihood of enhanced cognitive ability and a boost to future success in whatever fields they choose to enter. Whether Dr. Ernst Katz ever had any notion of the latter makes no difference—many thousands are better off because of him.
An Interview with the Maestro
In 2002, Chet Cooper, editor-in-chief of ABILITY
Through the years, Cooper has become a loyal patron of the JPO and was especially pleased to talk to Dr. Katz about the 70th anniversary of the orchestra.Chet Cooper: Good morning, Dr. Katz. How are you?
Dr. Ernst Katz: Well, for an old man I’m good. (laughs) I’m doing my best.CC: I’d like to ask you about your early experiences in America that inspired you to create the Jr. Philharmonic. Where was your family from?
EK: They came from Russia…They’re an import. (laughs)CC: What did your parents do?
EK: Well, my father was a hat man, and he founded the Golden Gate Hat Company, the building where our offices are today. My mother was what you would call a housewife.CC: Was there music in your family?
EK: Yes, there was. My great-uncle was a conductor in Russia and a very fine musician. The Russians held him in very high esteem.CC: Did you ever go to Russia to visit, to see where your family had come from?
EK: No, I never wanted to go to Russia. I had five invitations to go, and I refused to go while it was a Communist state. And then it evolved, but I never did go. I played host to a lot of musicians in my orchestra, though, from the Moscow Conservatory.CC: How did you get started as a musician? Did your parents have a piano in the home?
EK: Yes they did. That you have to have—you may not have a violin or some other instrument, but a piano you have to have!CC: (laughs) I see. How old were you when you started to play?
EK: I began when I was 14 years old, which was very late in life, so to speak.
CC: How did you take to it?.…Continued in ABILITY Magazine
foreword by Sandra HeraldABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Brian Wilson issue include Letter from the Editor — Health and Happiness; Congressman Etheridge — Volunteerism for All; Headlines — AT&T, A&E, Accessible Tent, Fibromyalgia; Humor — Global Warming; Employment — The ADA and People with Hearing Loss; Google — New Accessible Search; Freedom For Life — Accessible Adventure; Staglin Family Vineyard — Good Wine & Good Causes; Schizoaffective Disorder — What You Need to Know; Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home; Book Excerpt — You're Stronger Than You Think; Events and Conferences...subscribe
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