Dan Trahey helps make OrchKids a national model for helping disadvantaged kids

Dan Trahey plays the tuba. He's played it all his life, and he takes his instrument with him everywhere, even though it's been years since he's performed regularly with an orchestra. Trahey's affinity for the unwieldy, decidedly uncool contraption says a lot about him.

The tuba partly explains how Trahey has helped make OrchKids — the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra program that puts musical instruments into the hands of schoolchildren regardless of their ability — into a national model for teaching life skills to youngsters in impoverished neighborhoods.


There's just one tuba in every symphony orchestra, so Trahey had to go it alone, forging a path that's slightly different from the one taken by his fellow musicians. He also had to shun the spotlight while helping all the other instruments in the orchestra sound their best.

"The tuba isn't a big solo instrument, but it's the foundation of any ensemble," Trahey says, "lt plays the tone that roots the orchestra and gives the other instruments something to build on."


It makes sense, then, that for Trahey, OrchKids' single most valuable lesson isn't providing instruction in playing an instrument. It's teaching kids how to be good citizens.

"In my mind, an orchestra is the perfect metaphor for a functioning society," says Trahey, 35.

"You have to be there, and you have to put your best foot forward all the time. But, you also have to know that we're all interconnected. We're bad at this in America, where we're all bred to be soloists. We create our own little worlds, and that's really dangerous."

Already the oldest and largest of the more than six dozen programs of its kind in the U.S., OrchKids is about to become more influential. The BSO announced this month that philanthropists Robert Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker have pledged their second gift of $1 million, enabling OrchKids to expand from five city elementary schools serving 750 pupils to eight schools enrolling 1,600 by the 2018-2019 school year.

OrchKids is the brainchild of the symphony's music director, Marin Alsop. She adapted a Venezuelan program known as "El Sistema" to fit Baltimore and got it off the ground with $100,000 of her own money.

But Alsop has a demanding international career and spends long periods out of town, so she needed someone to run OrchKids on a daily basis.

Most organizations have just one leader, but Trahey is far more than just the maestra's second baton. He's right up there giving the beat with Alsop, matching her dream for dream.

"Dan is a passionate leader who values his role not only as a musician, but as a citizen of the world," Alsop wrote in an email. "He is a person who will advocate relentlessly for those who have less, and is fearless in their defense."


For instance, Trahey told a reporter in 2011 that he hoped OrchKids would someday play Carnegie Hall. When Alsop later heard what Trahey had said, her eyes widened, perhaps envisioning what such a project would cost. Then she said gamely, "If Dan wants to go to Carnegie Hall, then I'm sure that Carnegie Hall is in our future."

It was Trahey who visited the White House in November to pick up an award from first lady Michelle Obama that was given to just 12 youth programs nationwide. It's Trahey who has been consulted about launching programs similar to OrchKids in several U.S. cities, plus Austria, Brazil and even Iraq.

"OrchKids has become a model program that people around the world want to know about," says Jesse Rosen, president of the New York-based League of American Orchestras. "Dan is not only responsible for executing the program, but he brings his own vision to the work. He's a zealot, a real crusader."

Trahey interacts personally with every kid he can, every day he can. During a break in an OrchKids lesson, Trahey might pick up one of his students and playfully turn him head over heels. He'll grab another kid's nose, hold out his hand to a third and ask for a piece of candy.

He'll also make home visits to find out why one of his students has missed a rehearsal. And when a parent of one of his students fell ill, Trahey provided sleepover service for the children.

Mateen Milan met Trahey in 2007, when he was 10 years old. Trahey was getting the boy a scholarship to study the clarinet and later the bassoon at the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute.


"Dan introduced himself," says Mateen, now 16. "He made me look him in the eye, and he made me shake his hand. He gave me the same respect that I gave him. From the beginning, he treated me as an equal."

If Trahey relates so well to his students, it may be partly because he also grew up without much money in Traverse City, Mich. For an entire winter, his family stored perishables on the deck because they couldn't afford a refrigerator.

"My brother and I always had enough to eat," he says. "We were financially poor, but we also were the most cared-for children I knew."

When Trahey was in the sixth grade, he wanted to learn the saxophone, but the family couldn't afford the instrument. Instead, a local bar owner gave the boy his old tuba.

"It looked like someone had run over it with a snowplow," Trahey says. "But I fell in love with it. I know now that the tuba is a far superior instrument to the saxophone."

He was lucky, he said, to attend school in a small rural community instead of in a big city.


"That's what's so beautiful about the public school system in the rural Midwest," he says.

"There was democratic access to music. It was a real social melting pot. There are no prep schools in northern Michigan. There was only one high school in the whole county, so everybody was together, the richest and poorest. Those that had were forced to advocate for those who had not."

Trahey graduated from Peabody in 2000 with a bachelor's degree in music education and music performance, then earned a master's degree in tuba performance from Yale University. After leaving Yale in 2003, he played for an orchestra in Mexico and had a recurring gig in Germany. But even when he was still in school, he was involved in founding and running community arts programs in Michigan and in Baltimore that promoted social well-being.

Trahey was working as the director of outreach for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in 2007 when Alsop began looking for someone to run OrchKids. Jeff Sharkey, the Peabody's director, recommended Trahey.

"Dan has a strange combination of charisma, confidence and gentleness that allows him to inspire young people from impoverished parts of Baltimore," Sharkey said. "Not every classically trained musician has that."

Trahey isn't merely dedicated to his job. He is, by his own admission, a bit obsessive. By choice, he doesn't own a home and he drives an American car built in the 1980s.


"I try to live with as few distractions as possible, because this is my whole life," Trahey says.

"Because I don't have a huge mortgage or car payments, it's easy for me to stand up for the things I believe in. I have a very serious girlfriend who is also working in this movement. Most of our time at home is spent drinking wine and talking about how we're going to achieve social change through music."

He won't rest until OrchKids has expanded to all students in Baltimore's public schools. He won't quit until local universities are teaching their students how to "be musicians in the 21st century" and are using the arts to foster social change. And he won't feel satisfied until instrument repair shops are bringing new jobs to Baltimore's most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

"If you want to make social policy change, you have to stand up and fight," Trahey says. "You have to put your fist in the air and say, 'I'm going to come at this with everything I have.' "

So it's curious that Trahey prefers remaining behind the scenes, because he seemingly was born to occupy the podium. He's smart and articulate, with passion to spare. He's also ambitious — not personally, but in terms of the goals he wants to accomplish.

Those attributes aren't a natural fit with someone who says that he "loves the idea of trying to carry out someone else's vision" and describes himself as "just one of the paint colors."


Trahey's mentors think it's time for him to venture out from the wings. There's a role in the modern orchestra, they say, for soloists as well as for tuba players. Trahey is magnetic, and people will be drawn to him. But they can't help him realize his dreams if they don't know what those dreams are.

"Dan kind of stays in the background," says David Fedderly, the BSO's principal tuba player, who has known Trahey for half his life.

"He says that OrchKids isn't about him — it's about the kids and social change. But ultimately, he'll have to come out into the spotlight a little more. That's the only way he'll get funding for his big ideas."

Dan Trahey

Age: 35


Hometown: Traverse City, Mich.

Residence: Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood

Job: Director of artistic program development for OrchKids

Education: Bachelor's degree in music education and music performance from John Hopkins University's Peabody Institute, 2000. Master's degree in tuba performance from the Yale School of Music, 2003.

Personal: Single, no children or pets

How he unwinds: He runs about five miles a day and practices the tuba


Favorite indulgence: Coffee. He hopes someday to open a small roasting and distribution business with his brother.