By Drew Ailes
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Mark Sarich is used to doing it himself. The founder of the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center spearheaded the restoration of his inherited building, turning it from a property with multiple city code violations into an acclaimed concert/performance venue that champions the city's experimental music scene. The bottom of the LNAC's website sums up its approach succinctly: "DIY or DIE."
But while he firmly believes in doing it himself, Sarich does not do it for himself. After giving a voice to a small but devoted niche of music, Sarich is putting his efforts behind another lesser-known class of artists: underprivileged high-school classical musicians. "The idea that an inner-city kid could become an orchestra musician just seems patently ridiculous to most," Sarich says. Armed with multiple degrees in music education from the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University and years of piano performance and teaching experience, Sarich is changing expectations with his educational program/community band, Orchestrating Diversity.
"People told us, 'Man, if you get eight kids, that's incredible,'" Sarich says. "People told us 'Four weeks maximum. There is no way kids are going to show up for an eight-week program.'" This past summer, not only did 23 students commit to the full length of the curriculum, but they also played in two concerts that featured pieces by such luminaries as Mozart, Hayden, and Bach.
The students' dedication might have stemmed from the fact that they had to want to get in; each pupil had to pass a performance audition and demonstrate financial need. "What we were looking at was not to make the poor kid in the program the exception to the rule, but the rule," Sarich says.
The students' enthusiasm showed in their eight weeks of practicing, studying and absorbing music. Summer Orchestrating Diversity meetings began with the discussion of a piece playing as students filtered in before moving to intense lessons in music history and theory.
"The idea was that the morning would be sort of an introduction to what a college course would be like," Sarich says. Wanting to "give them as much theory as humanly possible," Sarich felt his students could either test out of a university theory course or at least enter the class with some background knowledge. Percussionist Jonathan Womack of Metro High School says this goal was met. "I've definitely learned a lot more music history; my theory has been a lot better," he says. "I've come out more musically inclined than I went in."
Sarich is proud of the progress but does not allow himself to take full credit for the program's success. Earlier this year, Sarich's friend Max Woods, a Washington University student, discovered the opportunity for a grant through his school and was quickly swayed by Sarich to write it for what would become Orchestrating Diversity. Although the $4,000 helped, Sarich quickly realized he would need more. He was surprised by the response he received – especially after asking music teachers to come to the program and give lessons to the participants. "A number of instructors have turned around and said 'You can give me an honorarium, but I'm just going to give it back,'" he says. He also noted that Webster University and the Steinway Piano Gallery donated and lent instruments to the program.
The group is inactive at the moment but will hopefully re-form with roughly two-thirds of its present lineup and a handful of new students soon. Sarich is tinkering with the schedule of non-practicing activities and will likely scale back the program because of the natural interference of school. Nevertheless, Sarich is excited about Orchestrating Diversity's possibilities and hopes to display its potential with a December performance.