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Dr. Ernst Katz — 70th Anniversary of the Jr. Philharmonic

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-
musicians, such as an increased size of the corpus callosum, a brain structure that facilitates communication between the two brain hemispheres. The differences were especially profound in subjects who had received music training before the age of seven.

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?
 
Taking these criticisms into account, the most recent studies have been structured differently, yet appear to show the same results—early music training, in particular, is linked to cognitive development, with an effect greater than other types of stimulating activities. For example, Schellenberg assigned 132 six-year-olds randomly to groups receiving music training, drama training or no artistic lessons at all. With this random assignment, the effects of family background, socio-economic status, intellectual readiness, preferences, etc. made no difference to the outcome. On follow-up testing, those who had received the music training scored highest in academic achievement and IQ, an effect noted across all IQ sub-tests and index scores.

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.
 
On the other hand, Yoshimura’s study and others have shown that socioeconomic status greatly affects whether children have access to music training, within their schools or outside of them, a finding that highlights the importance of opportunities like the JPO, which facilitates training for students of all backgrounds.

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
Irvine. Speaking specifically of the at-risk child, she noted, “Researchers have found that the failure to develop abstract reasoning represents the most glaring deficit of deprived children—and abstract reasoning is the very skill that is positively affected by music training.”

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
Magazine, first met Dr. Ernst Katz at a private White House ceremony. Both men were among a select group of Americans awarded by President George W. Bush with the President’s Community Volunteer Award, the nation’s highest award for individuals who have devoted extraordinary time, energy and resources giving back to their communities. Katz received the award for his work with the Jr. Philharmonic, Cooper for his creation of the ABILITY House program.

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 Herald

ABILITY 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


More excerpts from the Brian Wilson issue: (2006)

Brian WilsonA Powerful Interview

Dr. Ernst Katz — 70th Anniversary of the Jr. Philharmonic

Aloha— Hawaii's first ABILITY House

Shoshannah Stern — Ready for Prime Time

Universal Design — How to Build Your Dream Home

Book Excerpt — You're Stronger Than You Think

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