Music is a universal language, one that everybody speaks.
Whether a song is sung in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Yiddish or one of the other 6,000-plus languages of today’s globalized world, or has no lyrics at all, the true power of music is its ability to translate across the human experience and draw people together.
In Marin’s own Canal neighborhood of San Rafael, this remarkable effect can be observed firsthand through the Enriching Lives through Music program. ELM is a nonprofit organization structured around the core value of providing accessible musical education to children who, without support, may otherwise never have the opportunity to learn to play instruments.
The founder of ELM, oboe-enthusiast Jane Kramer, began the program with significant influence from her own musical education. As a child, Kramer studied under the tutelage of Ruth Greenfield, a musician, teacher, activist and the founder of the Miami Fine Arts Conservatory (one of the first fine arts schools in the country to racially desegregate in the 1950s).
“The Miami Fine Arts Conservatory was completely integrated, a total anomaly at the time,” explained Kramer. “My parents were very much a part of the civil rights movement, and at age seven, I was enrolled.”
Though Kramer ultimately chose to put down her oboe to pursue a PhD in health policy with a focus on adolescents, she never forgot the impact of her early years at the conservatory.
“It had always been my life’s dream to do something to replicate, in some form, the experience I had as a child at the Miami Conservatory,” she explained. “I’ve always been really into the transformative aspect of music on children’s lives…not even the skill, but the communal aspect of it.”
Naturally, when Kramer received a grant from her alma mater, Vassar College, she immediately knew what she wanted to do with the funding: return to her oboe studies and start a school of her own.
“I spent a year becoming an oboist again, and at the end of the year, in 2011, I purchased 15 soprano recorders and I went to the Canal neighborhood and found 15 kids who really wanted to learn how to play music,” said Kramer. “I taught them each once a week, and at the end of the year, I decided not to go back to my work, but instead remain and teach music to children who otherwise don’t have access to instrumental music programs.”
And so the ELM program began, and by 2014, the organization earned its nonprofit status. ELM now has two annual concerts where they demonstrate the program’s student’s competency with oboe, clarinet, cello, flute, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, violin and viola. In 2024, ELM will celebrate a full decade of service to the San Rafael community.
“From those original 15 kids with recorders, I decided to grow the program to include violins, cellos, flutes and so on, said Kramer. “Fast forward—we now have 150 kids, all working toward the goal of creating both beautiful music and a community.”
“Jane—not just Jane, but the whole ELM staff—they’re there for you as a community,” said Rita Escajadillo, an ELM parent and board member, who is Peruvian by birth and came to Marin nearly 24 years ago. Both of Escajadillo’s daughters (Ana and Daniela) have participated in the ELM program.
“When you care about people like family, you go far above and beyond for them, and Jane is part of our family,” said Escajadillo.
Though ELM began as and officially remains a program for musical education, the music was the very tip of the iceberg. As time passed and the student population grew, the ELM community organically began offering assistance in other areas in an effort to help bridge socioeconomic gaps and ensure support for each ELM family.
“We know that, as Latinos, the kids have a lower percentage chance of going to a four-year university, but ELM is changing that,” continued Escajadillo. “Currently, all of our high schoolers are applying to four-year universities, and that’s amazing. We are so grateful for everything that ELM does and for the support we receive that makes us feel very welcome and that we belong to a community that cares.”
The students of ELM range anywhere from the age of seven to 18, and regardless of age, all children enrolled in the program are expected to participate in and adhere to an intensive musical training program. Each week, the students study, practice and perform with their instruments for a minimum of 10 hours.
“Marin is such a unique community, and people see it as wealthy, but there’s more disparity between the rich and the poor than most other places in the state,” said Kramer. “While music is our central pillar, we are especially focused on academics, and we start academic support in third grade. We want to help our families and children think of themselves as college-bound.”
ELM truly embraced its status as a more-than-just-a-music school during the pandemic. Seeing the students struggle with online learning, the board of directors at ELM made the decision to offer tutoring services and academic support to students starting as young as third grade. This evolved to include a reading buddy program, and most recently, a counselor to assist children in 8th grade and up in college prep programs.
“We thought we’d dissolve the tutoring program with the end of COVID, but we didn’t anticipate the outpouring of huge appreciation and support,” said ELM’s academic program manager, Megan Frei. “Instead, we decided it needed to be integrated into the organization to meet the needs of the community, especially in terms of closing the achievement gap of students in the Canal versus other parts of Marin.”
The students of ELM are supported entirely through the generosity of scholarships, which means that donations, either fiscal or in the form of instruments (especially string, brass or wind instruments) are greatly appreciated.
“My goal is not necessarily to create musicians, but to give the children choices,” concluded Kramer.
The upcoming ELM Spring Concert will take place on June 4 at the Marin School of the Arts. Elementary school performances will take place from 1 to 2pm, and middle and high school from 4:30 to 6pm.
For more information on how to help support ELM, enroll a child in the program or to find answers to questions about the organization and the mission, visit the website at elmprogram.org, send an email to [email protected] or call 415-870-9053. The Enriching Lives through Music Program is located at 2955 Kerner Blvd., Suite B in San Rafael.