Robert Rivard

Steve Zeserman is a big, passionate man. You don’t have to know him very long before he opens up about saving lives through music. Most recently, he’s been reaching out to at-risk, inner city children with an aptitude for music and teaching them how to play an instrument and classical music well enough to earn a college scholarship.

Sounds like one very dedicated public school music teacher, right?

Zeserman is actually a veteran musician with the San Antonio Symphony, and a product of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, one of the finest music universities in the nation. Yet there is nothing elite about Zeserman, who off-stage is given to jeans, T-shirts, and running shoes. For nearly 50 years, his father sold newspapers on a North Philadelphia corner, his own musical dreams deferred to the next generation. Zeserman attended Curtis thanks to his own hard work and a generous scholarship.

Steve Zeserman instructs young violinists at St. Mary's Hall during YOSA's 2013 summer camp. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Steve Zeserman instructs young violinists at St. Mary’s Hall during Youth Orchestras of San Antonio’s 2013 Summer Symphony Camp. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Zeserman hasn’t forgotten any of that.

Since arriving in San Antonio in 1989 to perform as a double bass player in the Symphony, his zeal for giving back has only grown with time. Like many of the Symphony’s 70-plus orchestra members, Zeserman is affiliated with a local college – in his case, UTSA – and he maintains a private teaching studio at his Tobin Hill home, where individual advanced lessons cost $50 an hour.

Young YOSA violinists play with Zeserman on bass while he monitors their progress. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Young YOSA violinists play with Zeserman on bass while he monitors their progress. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Symphony musicians get paid for approximately one half year’s work and even veterans make under $30,000 a year. To supplement their salaries they teach, perform in summer festivals across the country, and perform in specialty ensembles. Zeserman, a survivor of the Symphony’s financial ups and downs a decade ago, also operates a T-shirt printing business he started back then as a hedge.

A weekly music tutorial from a professional musician for $50-70 an hour is affordable for an upper middle-class family with a musically gifted child. But it’s a sum beyond the means of the average inner city family.

So Zeserman and other Symphony musicians are making elite classical music instruction affordable, charging only $50 for six, 90-minute master classes that have attracted more than 150 advanced music students of limited economic means.

In effect, a small coterie of Symphony musicians have created their own private virtual charter school for classical music in the city. Students “get in” the same way the best athletes make the starting football team. They show drive, commitment and talent – and they don’t miss practice.

Zeserman instructs young bass players during a 2013 spring YOSA rehearsal. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Zeserman instructs young bass players during a 2013 spring YOSA rehearsal. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

In the course of doing some consulting work for the Symphony, I’ve come to know more of the orchestra members, and I’ve met several of Zeserman’s students. They are dedicated, talented and already accomplished. All of Zeserman’s graduating high school students go on to attend college. One in particular stood out for his poise, self-confidence and maturity. Tyler Valadez was a Highlands High School ninth grader in the San Antonio Independent School District who met Zeserman at a camp sponsored by the Youth Orchestras Of San Antonio (YOSA), itself a formidable force in the realm of music education and student performance. Valadez’s commitment to his instrument and his musical talent earned him a full scholarship to UTSA. He graduated this past May and already has turned down a teaching position at a local school district, for now content to operate his own teaching studio.

You can hear Valadez play the double bass and talk about the impact Zeserman had on his education and life trajectory by playing the video below.

There is ample evidence that students who play music or join the school band outperform their peers academically, scoring higher on their SATs, graduating with higher GPAs, and continuing on to college and graduation in much higher numbers. There are always exceptions to the rule, but basically, public school students who study music don’t drop out of school.

Zeserman is driven by another source of motivation he found after moving to San Antonio. The city is home every February to “All State,” more formally known as the Texas Music Educators Association Clinic/Convention. It’s a remarkable gathering of thousands of the most talented and accomplished high school musicians, music educators and nationally known conductors and orchestra musicians.

The process begins months before the convention opens when 55,000 student musicians enter into regional competitions throughout the state. The first-round winners progress to a second round of more select regionals. Out of that round,  1,500 earn All-State status and an invitation to the San Antonio convention. Once here, All-State musicians audition again over three days of intensely competitive rehearsals and performances for a coveted seat in one of 13 ensembles, including bands, orchestras and choirs.

Cecilia Ballí, a Texas Monthly writer, author and University of Texas anthropology assistant professor, made All-State three times as a student clarinetist from Hanna High School in Brownsville on the border. She returned years later to the annual gathering here and wrote the definitive story about All-State, titled, “Sounds Like Teen Spirit,” published in the magazine in 2007. It’s a great read.

Zeserman and a small group of performers from the San Antonio Symphony recently performed during lunch at Rackspace to show appreciation for their support. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Zeserman and a small group of performers from the San Antonio Symphony recently performed during lunch at Rackspace to show appreciation for their support. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Texas All-State winners go on to compete against other top state ensembles and – no surprise given the state’s size – Texas high school ensembles are formidable at the national level. More importantly, perhaps, for those who survive the pressure and the competition and make it to All-State status, a college scholarship to study music is almost a certainty.

“When I first found out about All-State, I learned that San Antonio was the permanent home to this incredible convention of thousands of great young musicians, but practically no students from San Antonio ever made it,” Zeserman said, recalling his frustration at the city’s under-achieving track record. “That’s kind of when I told myself, ‘You are failing these kids. You are leaving behind kids who really need you.’ And that’s when I decided I had to do more than just teach students who could afford $50 an hour. When I accept a child as my student because I know that he or she is committed, regardless of their ability to pay, I know I am going to change a life. That’s powerful.”

Zeserman began recruiting students willing to put in the hours of study and practice necessary to master more complex works of music that would allow them to compete at the All-State level. By the late 1990s, he had placed three students into the competition. Nowadays, he and fellow Symphony musicians routinely mentor students to All-State status. Some years Zeserman alone has placed six players in the bass ranks.

“San Antonio has to understand the value of what we are doing,” Zeserman said last week as we visited during the Symphony’s summer break. “We are changing the lives of children in this city. Kids whose parents didn’t ever dream of attending college, or didn’t even finish high school, those kids are winning scholarships, graduating from college, and getting good jobs. We musicians wouldn’t be here to do this for the kids if we weren’t here as members of the Symphony, and the Symphony is only here because the community wants a Symphony and the donors support us. Donors are supporting great musical performances on stage, but they also are supporting our outreach to the next generation.”

This is the first in a periodic series of stories focusing on San Antonio Symphony musicians and their place in the music education ecosystem. Coming next: Symphony violinist Aimee Toomes and 10-year-old Emilio.

(Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group LLC, which publishes the Rivard Report,  performs consulting services for the San Antonio Symphony. The Rivard Report, however, does not publish sponsored stories.)

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.