The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra had a very good year in 1999. Brazilian-born conductor Fabio Mechetti had just been appointed music director and principal conductor of the JSO, and music lovers flocked to Jacoby Hall to see the brilliant new conductor.
Many Amelia Island residents were attending performances, and a core group of concert-goers gathered together and formed a committee to explore the possibility of formally organizing an Amelia Island JSO support group. They called themselves Amelia Residents In Action for the Symphony, or ARIAS, and they held their first membership event at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, with Fabio and Aida Mechetti as the guests of honor. Nearly 200 ARIAS members signed up that evening, and by 2003, the group had grown to 500.
ARIAS’s purpose is to encourage and promote attendance at JSO concerts and to sponsor JSO appearances on Amelia Island and in Nassau County. But ARIAS’s shining accomplishment might be their tireless promotion of music education and programs in Nassau County schools, including their popular Instrument Zoo.
Each year, ARIAS volunteers called Zoo Keepers visit local fourth grade students, bringing with them more than 50 instruments, from piccolos and oboes to trumpets and flugelhorns, and showing the children how to hold and play each one. Instrument Zoo was the creation of Shirley Spaniel and Kitty and Bill Hunt. After receiving support from school superintendent Dr. John Ruis, they engaged Nassau County elementary school principals in the project. The group recruited their musical instruments through donations and at pawn shops, and then found their Zoo Keepers.
Since its beginning, the Instrument Zoo has grown dramatically. For three mornings in January and February each year, 15 Zoo Keepers conduct two classroom sessions of fourth graders, which require a total of 65 volunteers. ARIAS’s Instrument Zoo touches 850 students annually.
Zoo Keeper Sharon Lennon believes the Instrument Zoo might lead to a child taking music lessons, or participating in other music programs. “There are no quantifiable results available for this program, but one has to consider that sparks lit in children’s hearts by the Zoo have led to further interest in music,” she says. “We hope it will lead to the enjoyment of music, and appreciation of those who present it.”
ARIAS president Jack Dickison, along with his wife, Jane, have been involved with the group for ten years. He feels ARIAS’s educational initiatives are crucial to Nassau County schoolchildren. “Besides the Instrument Zoo for fourth graders, we also provide subsidized violin lessons to first and second grade students through Arts Alive, we bring ensembles to fifth graders, and we also host community performances like our ‘Let Freedom Ring’ concert with the JSO,” he says. “We feel the Jacksonville Symphony is one of the best regional symphonies in the country.”
JSO performs 12 Masterworks concerts each season, along with 10 Pops concerts, and Coffee Concerts on Friday mornings. ARIAS provides a bus for Amelia Island residents to attend the concerts, and ARIAS members receive a discount on the cost of transportation. The group holds a membership drive each fall. The cost is $85 per couple, or $50 for an individual per year. For more information about membership, contact Jack Dickison at firstname.lastname@example.org or Barbara Zacheis at email@example.com. For more information about the Jacksonville Symphony, visit www.jaxsymphony.org.