Deep Welz: Ravinia’s CEO and President Brings Music Back to Public Schools

The REACH orchestra at William G. Hibbard Elementary School in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood starts kids off learning about music by simply putting instruments in their hands and letting them create chaotic sounds.

The results don’t matter—what matters is that they are playing.

“It’s about passion before technique—they bond with the idea of playing music, playing with others, and just go for it. There’s no fear,” says Welz Kauffman of Highland Park, president and CEO of the Ravinia Festival. Under the umbrella slogan Reach Teach Play, Ravinia has pioneered numerous outreach programs, including the Reach orchestra.

The ensemble of 72 kids, ages 8 to 12, started early this year and is based on the philosophy of El Sistema, the publicly financed music education program in Venezuela that has improved the lives of hundred of thousands of children from poor areas. The ensemble gave its first concert in May, and the passionate performance left Kauffman wishing he’d had such a freeing encounter with music at an early age.

And that might explain why Kauffman is going gangbusters on his mission to bring music back into public education, exposing young people to the arts and ensuring a new generation of music lovers for decades to come.

“School is the greatest single experiential venue for young people and the classical arts. Without that exposure to the emotion and expressivity of the arts, it’s hard to build that back when they’re older,” he says.

According to Kauffman, the demise of public school music education has left classical music with an aging audience. While everyone knew Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony 10 or 15 years ago, that’s not the case any more.

Kauffman is receiving accolades for his efforts to revive music education in public schools. In April, he received the “Voices of Freedom” award from Chicago’s Stowe Arts Academy. And he’s been tapped to head a group of Illinois leaders at a multi-state Education Leadership Institute convened by the National Endowment for the Arts to strengthen arts education.

And Kauffman knows about music in public schools because the great music education he had in school shaped him into the leader he is today. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, he played in jazz band starting in third grade and started piano at age 7.

When asked about his musical tastes, he says, “Whatever I’m currently listening to” and lists several genres. The deep love and excitement he feels for music is palpable. With any luck, such love will flow out of the programs he’s directed—in a veritable Welz-spring.

Welz’ Ravinia Picks

Haven’t got a clue about what Ravinia concerts to put on your calendar? We took some notes on the concerts that the President and CEO himself recommends.

Anything CSO
“I wouldn’t know which to pick,” of the performances by the world-class orchestra, which has been in residence at Ravinia for 74 years. Consider Celebrating the 80th Birthday of Stephen Sondheim (Saturday, July 31) or Mozart’s operas “Cosi fan tutte” and “The Marriage of Figaro” (featuring star bass-baritone Paul Corona of Elk Grove, see p.TK) in the Martin Theatre (Thursday, August 5 and Friday, August 6).

Roderigo y Gabriela
Saturday, August 28
An acoustic guitar duo from Mexico. “They’re outrageously virtuosic. It’s almost scary to watch what they can do.”

Nelly Furtado
Friday, September 3
It’s the multi-platinum-selling artist’s first time at Ravinia. “She’s a real polyglot. Her background is classical, jazz, hip hop, rap, world music. She speaks different languages. She’s from Canada, but there are Portuguese roots. It’s going to be a historic evening.”