by Ron Oshima
When the second-year Prelude Wind Ensemble (PWE) played the soaring melody of the theme from Jurassic Park at the recent Play Your Part all-day concert on November 5, members of the audience could not believe they were hearing a group of kids who had only been playing their instruments for one year! It sounded like a much more advanced ensemble.
When complimented on this performance, music directors Connie Fellows and Mike Krofta quickly deflected praise to their dedicated team of teaching artists and MYSO’s strategic and time-tested system of music education for students with little to no instrumental music experience.
The Prelude Wind Ensemble, MYSO’s newest addition, was born in August 2022 as part of the Community Partnership Programs. Tailored for fifth- and sixth-grade students who live in or attend school in the city of Milwaukee, this ensemble focuses on brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments. What sets it apart? The ensemble offers an opportunity to students with limited musical experience and limited financial means, making music accessible and captivating for all.
Behind the scenes are husband-and-wife team Mike Krofta and Connie Fellows, renowned Milwaukee-area school band directors with decades of experience. Mike, having retired as the director of the award-winning Oconomowoc High School band program in 2021, and Connie, with over 20 years of parochial school band teaching, bring a wealth of knowledge and passion to the PWE.
Mike and Connie rave about the support MYSO has given them with PWE. They acknowledge the advantage of having experts on each instrument give one-hour lessons once a week. “That’s huge,” said Connie. “In the schools we’ve worked at, we do all the instruments. We know all the instruments, but we don’t know the instrument the way a flute player knows the flute, or an oboist knows the oboe. These coaches help our kids get a really good sound on their instruments.”
For families new to the world of music, getting private lessons can be tricky. Money matters, and so does finding the right teacher. In PWE, master instructors offer weekly small group lessons. They also join sectional and band rehearsals, sharing their expertise in the group setting.
Used band instruments for beginners cost 2-5 times more than used string instruments for beginners. This presents a financial barrier to many kids wanting to learn to play band instruments at a young age. MYSO assumes the expense of acquiring the necessary instruments, either through purchase or rental. To qualify for PWE, students’ family income must not exceed certain levels. Each PWE student pays $75 per year while the actual cost is $5,000. In reality, every MYSO student enjoys a subsidized program cost, ensuring that MYSO music education is accessible to all.
The PWE kids can take their instruments home to practice and use them to play in their school band. As a result, some of these fifth and sixth graders are playing in a seventh or eighth grade band. In a sense, these kids become ambassadors for MYSO, and music in general. “We want them to play in their school band and get other kids excited about being in band,” said Connie.
Connie and Mike highlight the unique bond formed with the Prelude Winds kids, seeing them three days a week for 3 1/2 hours. During this extended period, they guide the young musicians through both challenges and triumphs, creating a supportive environment to address frustrations and anxieties.
Mike noted, “In this day and age where kids want to be successful right away, Prelude Winds provides a different path to success. You must sit down and work at it. You must be diligent about practicing and figuring it out. Success breeds success. That’s the life-changing impact of MYSO. We tell the kids, ‘see what you’ve done? You can do anything you put your mind to.’”
Mike added, “We always think of the school year as a journey. But last year, with our very first class, the parents were literally amazed. We had our first concert after only three or four days of practice, and some parents had tears in their eyes. We were able to play “Hot Cross Buns,” and they thought that was neat. They could see the progress their kids were making.”
When Mike retired in 2021, Connie split her four parochial schools in half with Mike, giving them the freedom to do more traveling, which they fully exploited for the first year. But deep down, they realized they wanted to do something involving giving back to the community. They weren’t necessarily thinking of music education when the call came from MYSO Artistic and Music Director Carter Simmons. Connie and Mike then talked with CEO Linda Edelstein, who they knew while attending UW-Madison. “Purpose in life” for both Connie and Mike just dropped into their laps.
For Connie and Mike, their involvement with MYSO is more than a calling; it’s a return to where it all began. Both former members of Music For Youth (MYSO’s previous name) met in the trumpet section of the orchestra, eventually marrying and raising two children who, not surprisingly, found their musical home at MYSO. As they prepare the next generation of musicians, Connie and Mike’s journey comes full circle, weaving seamlessly into the tapestry of Milwaukee’s musical legacy.
You can help make music accessible to all young people with a gift to MYSO at myso.org.