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Striking up for the bands

The Baltimore Sun

A school guidance counselor recently asked Alvin Roda, owner of the Laurel School of Music, whether he could lend a child a string instrument.

The girl wanted to learn to play in the school orchestra, but her mother couldn't afford an instrument, the guidance counselor said. Roda provided the violin for the child.

"She loved the violin, and she loved getting music lessons," said Roda, 44, of Laurel. "The guidance counselor told me that she sleeps with her violin."

The child's response inspired Roda to start a program to help children get musical instruments. He recently started an initiative to provide instruments for children who are unable to afford them, he said.

"There are a lot of children out there with a desire to play an instrument, but they don't even try because they know their parents can't afford one," he said. "I'm the owner of a music school, and our mission is to promote access to musical programs. Providing instruments to children who can't get one is one way of doing that."

Alerting people

To introduce his program, Roda said, he is sending letters to band instructors, directors and guidance counselors at all schools in Anne Arundel, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Once the children are identified, instruments of their choice will be provided to them for two years, he said. At the end of that time, Roda said, he will give the children who receive violins their instruments.

The children who receive brass instruments may need to pay a small fee, depending on the parents' financial situation, he said.

"I think that knowing that they can have the instrument will provide enough of an incentive that the children will take care of the instrument," he said. "Also it's a reward for them, because they stuck with their music instruction."

The need for such programs is tremendous, said Phillip Butts, music director and department chair at Arundel High School in Gambrills for the past 38 years.

The high school recently started Dollars for Music, a program that has raised about $45,000 for instruments that aren't funded through the county school system, Butts said.

"Some instruments cost in excess of $2,000," he said. "And we need them for the band."

As a result, there is a great need for instruments for children whose parents can't afford them, he said.

"I think a program that donates instruments to children is an excellent idea," Butts said. "I know I will take advantage of it, as will directors at other county high schools. We need more people who are willing to do such a thing."

Tough task

Brian Flood, assistant director of Musika, a national program started in 2001 that provides private lessons around the country, including the Baltimore region, said he sees a need for such a program, though it might be difficult to sustain.

"I think any child would benefit from such a program," Flood said. "But I'm not sure how successful it would be because, it will require a lot of time, and money."

Roda's interest in music stems from years of playing instruments as a child, including the piano, saxophone, violin, and trumpet, he said. Although he played in school bands, music was his hobby.

He attended law school at the University of Baltimore and in 1992 became a lawyer. After spending 13 years as an attorney, Roda was seeking a career change. About that same time, the Laurel School of Music went on the market.

"The school was for sale, and I thought the timing was perfect," Roda said. "I took a leap and bought it."

Thinking big

He had dreams for the school, which had 53 students, when he purchased it, he said.

"I wanted to be able to make a comfortable living," he said. "But I also saw the school as an opportunity to bring music to the community."

From the time he purchased the school, he said, he wanted to find ways to get children enthusiastic about music. So last year, he started a rock band program, which includes four bands.

"I wanted to give my guitar students an additional avenue to play their music," he said. "I wanted it to be something that would be a natural progression of their music."

The bands included an all-girls band, Broken Streetlights; a high school rock band, the Super Happy Fun Time Band; an adult band, the Laurel School of Music House Band, and Yellow Grenade, a 13-and-under band that includes two vocalists, two drummers, and three guitarists.

"It's always a little hectic when you give children who are 13 and under amps and drums," he said. "But we want to give kids various outlets to play their music."

The instrument program was added as another way to nurture a child's interest in playing a musical instrument, Roda said.

He has five violins to start the program, he said, and is planning fundraisers and instrument drives. He also plans to line up sponsors to provide instruments.

"I want to grow this program, so that eventually I can provide instruments to children in any of the four neighboring counties who want one," he said. "I want any child who wants to play a musical instrument to be able to play one."

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