Santa Barbara Symphony—Music Van Mobile Classroom

Bring instruments into the hands of third graders, guided by docents and professional musicians


The Santa Barbara Symphony’s Music Van program has been running continuously since 1978, bringing instruments into the lives of 3rd grade students throughout Santa Barbara. The Van, provided by board members Tom and Marilynn Sullivan, transports nearly 40 instruments to more than 40 schools per year (90 classrooms), reaching approximately 2,000 students annually. The instruments are provided by Nick Rail Music and represent all members of the orchestral family. The Van begins its journey the last week in September, traveling to a new location every day of the school week, continuing in operation through December 12. A professional musician always travels with the Van, giving a personal presentation to the students at every demonstration.


This extensive program relies on a strong network of volunteer docents. The docents begin their training with a luncheon in late August, followed by two training meetings. The first meeting gives instrument handling and care instructions along with proper mouthpiece sterilization procedure. The second prepares docents for the classroom demonstration. The docents generally work as a team through a two week cycle. The majority of docents come from either the Santa Barbara Symphony League or the Prime Time Band, a community concert band for people 50 years and older.


When the Music Van arrives at a school, there are usually two sessions which allow two different groups of students the experience. The docents set up three felt-covered tables; each table holds an instrument family. During the demonstration, the docents start with the string table, move to woodwinds, then brass, and finish with percussion instruments, which are set up next to the tables. The docents display each instrument and follow up with an excerpt CD showcasing that particular instrument. In this fashion, the students hear every instrument represented in an orchestra. This quick survey is finished by the professional musician performing his or her instrument of choice and giving anecdotal information about orchestral performance or personal experiences in music. For the second half of the demonstration, the children have an opportunity to handle and make exploratory sounds on the instruments while closely observed by the docents, who pay particular attention to the French horn and cello—the most frequently injured instruments. The demonstration takes about an hour with half for presentation and half for child participation and experimentation. Along with the musician, there are typically four docents for each demonstration leading a class that averages between 20 and 30 students—though the Music Van has visited schools for as little as fourteen students.

Greater educational reach:

Because the band program starts during the fourth grade in California public schools, the Music Van is often the children’s first musical experience, whetting their appetite for band the following year. Like many orchestras, the Santa Barbara Symphony brings groups of fourth- through sixth-grade students to educational concerts at the Arlington Theatre. This outreach rides on momentum created by the Music Van. The Music Van makes appearances at SBS family concerts and other special events such as the Cinco De Mayo celebration held downtown.

Growing influence:

The Music Van has undergone few changes since its inception, though a professional musician was added to all demonstrations. Additionally, the number of docents was increased to four. These simple but significant changes continue to win the hearts of schoolteachers, who register classes as soon as times become available. The SBS has not only received appreciative letters from teachers, but students and parents also take the time to thank the orchestra for its involvement. In several cases, students come home so enthused that their parents begin private lessons for their children.


The Music Van program received the 2006-07 Sally Parker Education Gold Award. Please see description at the Gold Book Online. Nick Rail, owner of Nick Rail music, and SBS Coordinator Mary Jane Cooper were named local heroes by the Santa Barbara Independent for their involvement in the Music Van project.

For further info contact:
Barbara Burger, Education Coordinator, 805-898-9526