Mike Tharp: Symphony conductor, others join to help Merced County foster kids get in tune with themselves, the future

January 28, 2012 

America has a half-million foster children.

Merced, a county of 255,000, has 760.

Henrik Jul Hansen was born in Denmark and trained as a conductor at the Royal Danish Music Conservatory and its counterparts in Sweden and London. He's conductor of the Merced Symphony and the Sacramento Ballet Orchestra, and has waved his baton over several other orchestras in California and New York. He's also performed at Carnegie Hall.

And he teaches at UC Merced.

What does the lion-maned maestro have to do with foster kids?

A lot, it turns out. Over the years, he's volunteered his time teaching music appreciation to schoolchildren.

So when Nancy Young-Bergman, field rep for Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, and Ana Pagan, director of the Human Services Agency, asked him to help some foster kids become aware of music, he was more than happy to oblige.

He's taken four of them to performances of "The Nutcracker" in Sacramento and this week appeared at Golden Valley High in three concerts for 1,500 youngsters -- not all of them foster children -- from 18 schools.

On Tuesday his friend from Germany, Talia Refeld, will perform in front of 80-plus foster children at the Multicultural Arts Center. A USC graduate, she works with orphans in Germany "to open their eyes to the beauty of music," Young-Bergman says.

"It's very important to do this," Hansen says. "We all need to help elevate what is around us. Youth are the most important community of people for our future."

For years, he's watched the eyes of kids widen as they listen to and learn about music. He's seen it improve their creativity, communication skills and teamwork. "Music can affect how they think and how they live their lives," he says. "It enriches the quality of their lives."

He's noticed special qualities about foster children: "They may be more adult than other kids their own age. It's been a necessity for them to take care of themselves. They're a little timid. When you give them something, they really open up. They've never really done acting (as a conductor) before. I just gave them a baton. I've seen them grow. It's all about self-confidence, teamwork and having the right spirit.

"There is definitely someone home -- and more so, I would say."

He teaches them about both vocal and instrumental music. And he makes it fun. At Golden Valley, he got Jim Kocher of Playhouse Merced, to "shave" a boy wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey as the Merced Symphony Association played "The Barber of Seville."

Later in the program, Hansen recruited two teenage boys who wound up "dueling" with each other and him with their batons as the orchestra whirled through "The Saber Dance." The kids in the audience screamed with laughter. And for "The 1812 Overture," paper bags were handed out to every kid to blow up and pop during the cannonade at the end.

The music clearly captivated the kids. And foster children need all the help they can get. Those in the foster care system are twice as likely as their peers outside it to leave high school without a diploma, according to WestEd, a nonpartisan nonprofit R&D service agency with 17 offices nationwide.

Foster kids are absent more, get worse grades, receive more disciplinary action and "are significantly overrepresented" in special ed programs, the agency reported.

By the time they're 22, some 51 percent are unemployed, 25 percent are homeless and nearly 20 percent are incarcerated.

Young-Bergman majored in music at Kansas State University, holds a doctorate in public health from the University of Texas and more recently has been a strong supporter of CASA, Court Appointed Special Advocates.

She's been a driving force behind twinning foster children with music. "Persistence is the key," she says. "Don't fall victim to 'It can't be done!' "

They're both fans of El Sistema, the National System of Youth and Children's Orchestras in Venezuela. It "is unlike any other music education program in the world," according to Boston.com. "Since its founding in 1975, the program has taken more than a million children between the ages of 2 and 18, many of them poor, and provided them with instruments and free lessons, creating a new class of young musicians."

Could that happen in Merced?

Young-Bergman says County Superintendent of Schools Steve Gomes has told her a lot of instruments aren't being used in schools because of budget cutbacks. The vision and enthusiasm of people like Hansen, Young-Bergman, Pagan and others make the dream of foster children finding themselves through music seem doable.

Apart from introducing foster kids and other youngsters to music, what does Hansen -- whose six-page, single-spaced résumé is filled with awards and honors from all over the world -- think of Merced? (He lives here three days a week when he's teaching, and the rest of the time in Sacramento.)

Merced is "definitely on the rise," he says. "Merced is in the process of attracting good people and attention. I hope the people of Merced enjoy the change that's coming -- a positive one."

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com.

Merced Sun-Star is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service