Why the Barbara Ingram arts school deserves your help

September 10, 2008

When Michael Thorsen, the new principal of Washington County's Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, talked to me recently, he said the school is a "great gift" from Washington County to students who will benefit from the program.

Thorsen, former principal of the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts, told me the story of one young high-schooler who came from a very needy family.

Despite that, Thorsen said, the student had a remarkable bass-baritone voice, which was put on display when award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch went to the school to do a workshop on how to audition.

According to Thorsen, the format of the audition was as follows:

Two students would be selected to perform, after which Hamlisch would offer his criticism. Then the student would spend time working with his or her own teachers, to implement Hamlisch's advice.


Thorsen said that when Hamlisch heard the student's audition, he turned to the arts school principal and said, "Holy -----."

The student later won a scholarship from the Ray Charles Foundation to Wilberforce College.

In another case, Thorsen worked with two high-schoolers, who were brothers, the older of whom was a percussionist and a younger brother who played the flute.

The younger was so shy that he hardly spoke in the first year of school, Thorsen said.

But the youngster blossomed when he tried out for (and won) a part in a school play. The shy one's stage presence led him to a number of productions, including an audition for Disney, where he reached the No. 3 spot in the competition for a spot in a traveling Disney company.

Thorsen is passionate about the arts, to the point where he spends his spare time judging band contests.

Inevitably, there will be some students who have talent, but whose financial situations prevent their pursuit of a career in the arts. For that, a group of Washington County school officials and civic-minded citizens have created a foundation that will help the school and its students.

"Such a thing doesn't happen on its own," according to Dale Bannon, director of system development for Washington County Public Schools.

In addition to setting up a 501 (C) 3 foundation for the Ingram School, Bannon said the school system is offering naming rights for various rooms in the school, now being converted from the former Henry's Theater.

Bannon said the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts (BISFA) will not adversely affect other schools' art programs, nor will there be problems with transportation or food service, Bannon said, adding that those issues have been worked out.

Cynthia Perini, a local banker and civic activist, shared the fact that someone had wanted to sponsor the curtain at the school's Black Box Theater, because the sponsor felt that standing behind the curtain, waiting to go on, was the most exciting moment in a young performer's life.

"Our passion with the foundation is to collect funds for what tugs at the donors' heartstrings," Perini said.

For some, she said, it's the chance to honor a beloved music teacher. Others might just want to promote the arts by offering a scholarship, Perini said.

In Washington County, where parents of school band members tend to have a fervor matched by the adherents of few other causes, it's difficult for me to believe that this new school will have difficulty in raising money - at least in the long term.

But now, in the start-up stage, the school might need some grease (read "money") for start-up costs.

If you believe that studying the arts makes every student better, you might want to donate.

The best way to do that is to contact Bannon at 301-766-2937 or

If you want more information about the school, including how to apply to teach there or how to audition, visit the school's Web site at

If you doubt the worth of this program, look at the 50 years of research that shows the beneficial effect of arts on students' academic performance.

Students of the arts don't just concentrate on performance. They also tend to excel in areas such as math and English. There is some debate about whether such students are more motivated than others or whether the organizational skills that instrumental music demands help them in other areas.

But whichever turns out to be true - better-motivated students or arts-induced performance - there does not seem to be a down side. If you can help this school get off the ground, please do.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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