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A maestro among us?


Daniel Pettit was 5 when he first held a violin under his chin in an awkward attempt to coax music from the instrument. The cherub-faced lad with a Dutch boy haircut took to it like other kids take to baseball or fishing or any number of leisure-time pursuits. Pettit wasn’t a prodigy, he insists, saying the word is tossed around so loosely that in common usage it has become a synonym for “talented.” He was thatl naturally so, it seems. At 18, he became the youngest musician ever to join the Des Moines Symphony, an accomplishment that won him a full-tuition scholarship to Drake University from EMC Insurance Co.

Now, when he’s not playing second-chair violin for the Symphony, he’s working as director of the Des Moines Symphony Academy to ensure that Central Iowa youths have the same opportunities.

A year-old program operated independently of the larger Symphony organization in the Temple for Performing Arts downtown and from a satellite location at the Crossroads Fellowship church in West Des Moines, the Academy’s goal is to not only bolster music education opportunities for young people and adults, but also develop larger audiences for the Symphony. Another of the Academy’s goals is to build a music community that will stimulate a lifelong involvement in music and hopefully curb some of the loss of interest that typically start around middle school age.

Pettit, now 23, is uniquely qualified to lead the Academy. A 2003 Drake graduate who majored in business, minored in music and will finish requirements for his M.B.A. in May 2005, he brings both business savvy and a joy for music to the position. He and three other musicians researched and developed the Academy, visiting similar programs in Rhode Island, Chicago, Minneapolis and Austin, Texas. They had hoped to get commitments from 75 students, but by the time they took the proposal to the Symphony’s governing board, they had signed up 130.

Young parents, many of whom had moved to Greater Des Moines from other metropolitan areas where such programs are commonplace, were keen to the idea and quickly enrolled their children. “A lot of the original families are from places other than Des Moines, and they know this is a good thing for kids to get involved in,” Pettit says. “It’s a great activity for the kids, and it’s very important to have the arts in Des Moines and to have kids exposed to this kind of thing.”

The only problems remaining were financial. The Symphony’s governing board didn’t want to put further strain on an already stretched budget. “The only scary part was the money,” Pettit says. “We never wanted to take any away from the Symphony. Once we figured out a way to make it work, the board unanimously approved it.”

The Academy’s funding comes from tuition and from donations from individuals and businesses, solicited to keep the programs affordable. Instructors are professional musicians from the Symphony and college professors from around Central Iowa, and programs range from traditional private lessons to the nationally acclaimed Music Together classes for children from birth to age 4 that combines singing, movement activities, improvisation, rhythm and tonal development, and instrumental jam sessions.

Music Together, a program first offered to the public in the late 1980s, traces its lineage back to “Happy Birthday to You,” a variation of the song “Good Morning to All” written by Kentucky kindergarten teachers Patty and Mildred Hill more than a century ago. Royalties the Hill sisters received for commercial uses of their published and copyrighted song provided seed money for a foundation for early childhood organizations that funded Music Together founder Ken Guilmartin’s initial researches. His goal was to create a parent-child music and movement experience in which children would learn through playful, developmentally appropriate activities that parents could continue at home.

“When you have 4-year-olds with 1- and 2-year-olds, the 4-year-olds become leaders and the 1- and 2-year-olds have someone to look up to and they move at a faster pace,” Pettit says.

The Academy also offers instruction in the Suzuki method, which is based celebrated Japanese pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki’s revolutionary approach to teaching music to infants and youngsters. Suzuki maintained that by listening and imitation, children can learn to speak any language — and play music — by age 3. Although originally conceived for the violin, the method of instruction has been expanded to include other instruments.

The Academy’s programs recognize the importance of parental involvement in a child’s music education. In fact, that’s how Pettit got his start. His mother had heard of the Suzuki method and enrolled in violin classes with her son. His aptitude for music established in that initial exposure, he was one of the first eight students to enroll at the Cedar Rapids Symphony School of Music, established in 1986 to provide high-quality instruction for young string musicians in the Cedar Rapids area. Later, he transferred to the more prestigious Prucil School of Music in Iowa City.

“It became more and more a part of my life,” Pettit says. “Great teachers can really inspire you to do whatever you do. Who knows how much innate talent I have?”

Still, he didn’t consciously think about how he’d turn his love for music into a career. “I never thought about playing in a professional symphony,” he says. “When I played violin, I just enjoyed it. It was my chance to relax. When you play, you don’t think about everything; you get caught up in the music. It’s my hobby, what I do in my spare time.”

It wasn’t until about midway through his high school years at Cedar Rapids Kennedy that it occurred to him he could make money doing what he most enjoyed. He met Joseph Giunta, who’s now celebrating his 15th season as the music director and conductor of the Des Moines Symphony, when Giunta was the guest conductor for the Iowa State Music Festival. Also as a high school student, he was a guest soloist for the Cedar Rapid Symphony, performing the third movement of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto.

Music has given Pettit not only the basis for a career, but also the self-confidence to advance within it. “Music, because I started in it when I was 5, has given me a lot of confidence in my abilities,” he says. “Since I was 5, it seems I’ve always been performing before a large group of people.

The Academy’s programs have been phenomenally successful in its inaugural year, Pettit says. Eight months after the Academy opened its doors on Sept. 8, some 210 students have enrolled in classes, 90 percent them children. The students range in age from infants as young as 4 weeks (infants under 8 months can attend classes free if a sibling is registered) to adults in their 70s.

Pettit himself is a student at the Agademy. He has taken guitar lessons and learned quickly there’s more to picking out the chords than he thought. Hopefully like the parents who enroll their children in Academy programs, he views music education as a lifelong process. “As a musician, you can’t master a skill and can’t perfect it,” he says. “There’s always something to do better.”

The first test of the Academy’s effectiveness in training musicians for the Symphony will come in August, when blind auditions will be held for two open chairs. Pettit says there are some “phenomenally talented kids” coming through the program.

“We’ll see how well it has worked,” he says.

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