“Music is always about people, wanting to connect, and connecting together”
—Valerie Imhof, Class Act co-founder and program chair
In 1994, parents from seven Orange County elementary schools sat around a table and discussed their hopes and dreams for music in their children’s lives. Guided by then-Education Director Kelly Lucero and Pacific Symphony supporter Valerie Imhof, this group of visionaries conceived a unique partnership between the Symphony and local school communities—and Class Act was born.
Symphony musicians would serve at the heart of this new and exciting partnership. Parents, teachers and administrators at seven inaugural schools would also play an important role, each bringing their own unique contribution to the program. In September 1994, Class Act went from being a beautiful dream to a vibrant reality. Three Symphony musicians joined the team as the program’s first teaching artists: Cynthia Ellis, Flute; Andrea Honea, cello; and Michael Hoffman, trombone. Today, the Frieda Belinfante Class Act program has served more than 250,000 students, making a lasting impact on school communities through workshops, lessons, assemblies and concerts at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. In the 2019-20 school year the program will serve 14,680 students in 29 schools from 14 cities across Orange County. The cornerstone of Class Act’s funding is a multi-year grant from the Fieldstead Foundation, in the name of musician, conductor and educator Frieda Belinfante.
Celebrating the Vision of Class Act’s “Godmother”
A violinist, teacher and passionate lover of music, Valerie Imhof has been the beating heart of Class Act throughout its quarter-century history. Though her official title is Class Act co-founder and program chair, Valerie is affectionately known as the program’s beloved “godmother.” When asked what inspired her to create Class Act collaboratively with a group of parents, she says, “We wanted to develop a program that actually connected with schools in a very meaningful way, and we thought that parents would have a good idea of how to do this.”
This approach, putting parents at the center of the partnership, clearly worked. It continues to be a critical part of the program’s success, as Valerie has seen over the years. “Involving the parents was the best way forward, because we were invited to be part of their schools, instead of imposing ourselves upon them and trying to ‘sell’ what we had. Today, the parents’ role is just as essential, with parent volunteers handing down their knowledge to the next generation of parents.” Valerie then shares a benefit of the program that she never imagined. “Some of those parent volunteers are still with us many years later, as volunteers, and as staff.” Valerie’s pride is well founded.
The current Class Act staff team, led by the Symphony’s Director of Education Jonathan Terry, boasts no fewer than three former Parent Coordinators with many, many more serving as regular Symphony volunteers.
Inspiration and the Joy of Learning
25 years on, Valerie still finds joy and inspiration in her involvement with Class Act. “I get involved with all of these wonderful people, and these fabulous musicians in a way that I would never have been able to do before. I get to watch them work. For me, this is a royal gift.”
She particularly loves the Class Act Lessons, where specially-trained Symphony teaching artists work directly with a single classroom of students, teaching them about their musical lives and the lives and music of a new and inspiring composer each year. “You think that you have already heard all the questions that could ever be asked, but then at the end of a lesson a student asks a question that you would never have even thought of! You then know that they have really become engaged and involved in a way that they have found meaningful.”
Valerie also loves the moments when students have the opportunity to hear “their” musician play as part of an ensemble, both at a school’s Family Night chamber music concert, and when the schools come to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall for the yearly Youth Concerts.
“My favorite moment was when one of my students, who barely smiles and acts ‘cool’ all the time, told me without hesitation and without embarrassment, that he cried through the whole Youth Concert, out of pure emotion. My heart sang hearing him say those words,” shares a teacher from Heritage Elementary in Tustin. It is indeed moments like these that inspire us all.
“I can’t even imagine my life without Class Act,” Valerie reflects. “I have made such friends along the way. But most of all, the program is always growing, and always changing. Because it is all about the people. Music is always about the people, wanting to connect and connecting together. And it is about the sincerity of our musicians wanting to connect, too. It has been really special to me, because when everything works, it is just magical.”
In celebrating Class Act, Valerie and the whole Class Act Family joyously celebrate the lasting impacts that the program has had on its students.
In the fall of 2007 a kindergartner named Sean Oliu heard the beautiful strains of Mozart’s music at his first Class Act Prelude Assembly at Adelaide Price Elementary School in Anaheim. He met his Class Act musician Mike Hoffman, and according to his mother Robbie Hernandez-Oliu, the seeds for a vibrant musical future were planted. Today, Sean is a high school senior at Servite High School and is a featured performer on Disney’s “Club Mickey Mouse,” where he writes and performs his own music. Even more importantly, Sean is the founder of Kids Giving Back, a local not-for-profit that supports music education in Anaheim schools.
Another high school senior, Kyle Graham, details how Class Act opened the doors for him to discover his own future in music. “Class Act stimulated my interest and love for music, as now I want to be a music major in college. I also found out about the Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles and have been in Pacific Symphony Youth Wind Ensemble for four years.”
Kyle’s mother, Melanie, who served as a volunteer Class Act Parent Coordinator for many years, provides a parent’s perspective on her family’s Class Act experience. “As a parent in Class Act, I learned about all the programs available to students with an interest in pursuing music at a higher level. I also learned that most professional musicians are very encouraging and willing to help students make their way into broader musical experiences.”
Celebrating 25 Amazing Years
Valerie Imhof can’t wait to launch the 2019-20 Class Act season. “I’m looking forward to this year. And I love those musicians! I’m so proud of them and the work they do. And so proud our incredible staff who hold everything together, and our dedicated volunteers who give hours and hours and hours.” She has a lot to be proud of. Class Act celebrates its 25th anniversary, and Carl St.Clair’s 30th anniversary, with the music of John Williams and the theme, “Symphony at the Movies.”
“I am very excited about John Williams! So many of our Pacific Symphony musicians have played his movie scores with him, and now we get to share this with our students and schools,” Valerie enthuses. “It is going to be a great year!”
This article was written by Vice President of Education & Community Engagement Susan Miller Kotses. You can learn more about our Class Act program on our website here!