The uncertain fate of the National Philharmonic: why we should care


Alex Silber

The National Philharmonic nearly closed this fall after a decline in funding.

By Eleanor Taylor

It was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Drums boomed, violins raced and cannons exploded. It was electric; everything within the warm wooden walls of Strathmore’s grand theater seemed to be vibrating with life. 

In that moment, I thought to myself, Wow. This is something I could really do.

My fifth-grade field trip to see the National Philharmonic, Montgomery County’s main professional orchestra, left a lasting impression on me. I had started playing the flute in my elementary school’s band a year earlier, and although it was exciting to learn music — and a great way to get excused from math class — band was nothing more than a casual activity for me. 

But from the first time I saw the National Philharmonic perform, I was hooked. Seven years later, I still remember the palpable, timeless exhilaration I felt when I heard their music. And seven years later, I’m still playing the flute in my school band.

My experience isn’t unique: for the past 14 years, all MCPS second and fifth-grade classes take field trips to see the National Philharmonic perform at Strathmore. Students are admitted for free; it’s an invaluable opportunity for kids to see dynamic music performed live in a professional environment.

But over the summer, the National Philharmonic announced that after 16 years of playing as a group, a decline in funding was forcing the orchestra to close its doors.

When I heard the news, not only did I struggle to imagine our community’s performing arts without its staple orchestra, but I also began thinking about the elementary school classes that would never get to experience the National Philharmonic. It’s both a personal loss to students and a broader loss to all MCPS music programs.

In an effort to keep the orchestra open temporarily, Jim Kelly, violist and co-owner of the Silver Spring Potter’s Violins company, raised more than $300,000 with the help of 12 unnamed donors. The National Philharmonic’s board of directors raised an additional $200,000 through an online funding campaign. 

Kelly is now president of the board of directors, and with this funding, the orchestra will stay open for another year. But what happens after that?

Unfortunately, it’s possible that without the National Philharmonic as an inspiration for students, MCPS music programs could see a decline in participation. But the absence of music education goes beyond a missed elementary school opportunity or a hit to the reputation of the county’s existing music program.

A 2014 study from the Music Education Research journal found that students who take music classes often report an improved quality of school life; another study by the International Journal of Music Education found that learning musical skills often correlates with lasting improved concentration, teamwork, self-confidence and self-discipline in children. A lack of music education could easily deprive young students of long-term, real-life benefits.

The annual National Philharmonic field trip is especially valuable for students who come from lower-income backgrounds, Bannockburn and Potomac Elementary School band director Pamela Foley said. Classical music concerts can often be expensive and unrealistic for families to attend, so the presence of the orchestra helps extend the reach of the art form in our community.

Maybe it’s taking a trip to Strathmore to see a concert with your family once a year, or maybe it’s writing a letter to the County Council, sharing how the orchestra has positively impacted you and your community. But in order to preserve the National Philharmonic, we need to actively take steps to support it. We can’t let its future rest in the hands of a few donors. Regardless of whether you’re a musician, we have to support the arts in our community. Students like me will be forever grateful.

My peers and I were fortunate enough to experience the talent and professionalism of the National Philharmonic firsthand. We were lucky enough to reap the benefits of a consistently strong music program. It’s our job to pay those experiences forward so the next clueless, fifth-grade flutist can discover the magic of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.