KAILUA-KONA — As founder of Symphony of Hope, Doug McClure knows what an instrument, a few songs, and a spotlight can do for any child.
He has seen the transformation that comes with putting violins in the hands of young people who want to improve themselves and their lives.
“The right song at the right time can really bring a lightning rod of attention for the kids,” McClure said. “It can really bring attention to them, their life and their life circumstances.”
McClure is giving that chance in the spotlight to 60 children on the Big Island as he teaches them to play the violin, forming the Symphony of Hope — Pacific.
The program was founded by McClure in association with Youth with a Mission (YWAM). McClure has started Symphony of Hopes previously in India, Papua New Guinea and Germany, and now his fourth branch is forming along the Kona Coast, stretching from the University of Nations campus in Kailua-Kona all the way south to Milolii.
The program on the Big Island is geared toward the Native Hawaiian youth and the youth of other Pacific island nations.
“We just started this, but it is so exciting for me to see the young people of the different Pacific island communities and to see them playing music together,” McClure said.
The symphony has already played on stage, right after its formation in November for the 40th anniversary celebration for the University of Nations in Kailua-Kona.
But they are currently on track for something much bigger.
McClure said Symphony of Hope — Pacific received an open, verbal invitation from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to play in Washington, D.C., the greatest stage yet for the Big Island keiki. They still have to learn a couple of songs to play — and practice, practice, practice — before they can take their trip, but the invitation is a reminder to the group that anything is possible through music.
At a Wednesday practice at University of Nations last month, a portion of the group gathered to learn to play the song “Hawaii Aloha,” also called “Ku‘u One Hanau.” The song is still in its beginning stages of development, but once the children master the song on the violin, it will be played in D.C.
“At the first performance, it was very exciting, but I also had butterflies in my stomach, so I was nervous,” said Sarai Tyson-Duar, a student at Kealakehe Intermediate School.
Building future leaders
While music seems like the main focus of Symphony of Hope, McClure said it’s only half his mission. Another component of the program is leadership development.
“It may sound strange, but I believe in labeling and name-calling,” McClure said. “Regularly, in class, I will call them names like ‘leaders.’ The kids will say, ‘I’m a leader.’ With music, you’re an ambassador to the nations of the world. So I call them leaders, I call them ambassadors, I call them world changers in class. And I believe that if I keep that in front of them all the time, eventually, they’ll begin to believe it.”
At his established Symphony of Hope programs around the world, McClure has seen the children he teaches come to believe in themselves as leaders. McClure said the Symphony of Hope — Germany played for Chancellor Angela Merkel, a far cry from where those in the group started before joining the symphony.
“Symphony of Hope — Germany is a ministry there for the youth of the Middle East, the refugees that have come into Europe — kids from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. Students that have families that have some really tough stories,” McClure said. “It’s just amazing. In each location, these young people have been invited to the highest level of their governments with music, and it turns out to be a great influence.”
McClure is an accomplished musician himself. He started his professional career playing the cello for the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Opera orchestras before he moved on to being a solo musician. As a soloist, he performed for several world leaders, including King Juan Carlos I of Spain, King Abdullah II of Jordan, King Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
His time playing in Jordan stands out to McClure as one of the moments in his life that drove him to create Symphony of Hope.
“In Jordan, I was invited to play for this gathering of leaders from all over the Middle East. There was a lot of potential tension in the room with these leaders, and they said they just needed me to come and spend 10-15 minutes on my cello and change the atmosphere,” McClure said. “They just thanked me so much. They said, ‘Thank you so much for bringing that. The music that you played really changed the atmosphere here. And it really helped with this meeting.’”
It was after reaching those high levels of being a professional musician that McClure decided to pass on those ambitions and goals to the next generation throughout the world.
Sticking in Kona
McClure works in each country that has Symphony of Hope to establish the program, before he leaves well-trained teachers to take his place. However, he still helps to teach the programs remotely, using Skype every week to teach and stay in contact with the overseas groups.
As for Symphony of Hope — Pacific, Kailua-Kona is his home base, and he plans on staying on the island to head the program in person. He currently runs three practice sessions a week: one in Milolii on Tuesday afternoons, and two in Kailua-Kona, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons.
It’s not just the glamour that comes with a big stage that the students are excited about. With Symphony of Hope — Pacific, McClure is also teaching a love of learning and music to the next generation.
“I like how it gets challenging as we move on, and it just helps me focus,” said Taimane Alo, who is a student at Konawaena Middle School. “It’s kind of hard to explain. Music in general helps me stay connected to whatever I’m doing, it helps me focus more.”
That’s why, even if there wasn’t an invitation from Washington, D.C., waiting for them, McClure would still consider Symphony of Hope a victory for himself and the students.
The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“I see it as a win on every level, I really do. And that’s not just because I’m the founder, I really see it now out working in different countries, and now working here, is it’s a win for the students,” McClure said. “We have a number of students who are searching for their gift, their talent.”
And maybe that gift can be found in a violin.