Arts & Entertainment

Karen Deschere, Executive Director of Wharton Music Center, Talks of Passion, Vision & Outreach


BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -  Karen Deschere, the executive director of Wharton Music Center (WMC), recently spoke of her passion and vision for music education and community outreach during an interview with TAP into Berkeley Heights.

Deschere joined WMC last January, bringing a solid background with community music education and directing symphony orchestras. 

Deschere served as president and chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, a community music school based in Milwaukee, and previously served as the executive director for both the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Prior to joining WMC, she ran the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. 

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Her passion is evident as she speaks of education and the performing arts. "I know for me, that was what kept me going to school everyday," said Deschere. "I really excelled in music and that is where I felt valued in high school."

With programs getting cut in many schools, she added, "It is important to have alternatives in education. The community music school can step in and fill the needs." 

Deschere is carving out plans to create her personal stamp at WMC. She envisions a musical and performing arts program to provide the foundation from early childhood, offering a comprehensive program that will keep the students at WMC.

"I want to have a music continuum," said Deschere. "We will be expanding the early childhood program -- start younger with the babies. Get them in early and it builds your base."

WMC will find the right fit at any entrance point. "Enter at anytime, there is always a place to go. If  you are an adult beginner, we can help you with that." Her vision includes engaging the seniors -- offering lessons and ensembles.  

The fall schedule will be expanded to include more early childhood [Musik Garten] and beginner class initiatives including a ukelele class as well as new tracks to the music theater group. 

At WMC, the focus is on the individual student. "We do not have a formula, we teach to the student with their individual goals," said Deschere. "We can teach to the casual track, for their own enjoyment. But if you want to learn more, we have the Achievement Program. You take the lesson and then music theory or join an ensemble. The level of play and the degree of what they are doing ramps up each year."

The merger between WMC and the New Jersey Youth Orchestra is two years old. Deschere credits former director Derek Mithaug for getting the organization to stable ground from the unsteady economic times resulting from the financial crisis. "I give him a lot of credit for rebuilding. Now, I can run and maintain the financial stability," said Deschere.

The New Jersey Youth Symphony is an outstanding program, said Deschere, taking first place in the orchestra division of the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival and competition held in early July in Vienna, Austria.

"There is a real family feel, I felt very welcomed right away," added Deschere. "We have a great mix of folks on the board with fabulous attendance and so much energy." Speaking of the 17-member board led by board president Lenore Davis, who is a pianist, and including attorneys, pharmaceutical executives and educators. 
While 70 percent of the WMC budget comes from tuition, they receive funding from grants and fundraising efforts with the youth orchestra Play-A-Thon, Gala and an annual appeal. 
With the aid of project based grants, WMC created the Paterson Music Project (PMP) in January 2013. This intense music experience was introduced to 23 second grade students at the Community Charter School of Paterson (CCSP). 
"There was a report that came out with Paterson being the lowest of the low with regards to their arts programming," said Deschere. "Wharton saw this as an opportunity."
The program was the vision of WMC former Executive Director Derek Mithaug, Jeffrey Grogan and CCSP principal and WMC board member Marnie McCoy. 
The philosophy of the program follows that of the successful El-Sistema program out of Venezuela. "It's a whole movement -- a philosophy of social justice through music," said Deschere. 
The El-Sistema program began 35 years ago by a visionary who created neighborhood orchestras as a way to help kids out of poverty. "Everyone was poor, and they needed to elevate themselves to get the kids off the streets," said Deschere. 
"The music teaches them focus -- they learn how to become disciplined which they apply to their studies," added Deschere. 
With her 33 years of experience, Deschere has seen it over and over again.
"If we create great musicians, that's fantastic, but we are creating empathy, tolerance and teamwork," said Deschere. "The second-graders are now in third grade, and we have added more players. The kids are working together and learn how to listen. All of this intense concentration in a communal setting -- we can solve all the problems of the world with this type of focus," said Deschere.
"I am very happy about that program and the expansion," said Deschere. The program currently has over 50 students participating. She is thankful for the foundations that support the program, including Geraldine R. Dodge, Truzack and Dombal-Vogel Foundations, to name a few. The students also contribute each week. "It's important for the students to pay a little bit --  when things are free, things aren't quite valued. It's important to have a little skin in the game. The parents are entirely behind the program," said Deschere.
The PMP provides a social change and youth development program that uses music to enable every child to feel like an asset within her or his community. The sense of family being created fills Deschere with pride. "We are providing much more than music -- we are changing lives every day," said Deschere.  
Wharton Music Center is located at 60 Locust Ave., Berkeley Heights.

To learn more about WMC and the New Jersey Youth Symphony visit their website.

Editor's Note: Wharton Music Center is an advertiser on TAP into. To learn more about becoming an advertiser, please call (908) 279-0303 or email

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