Betty Perry has devoted her life to instilling the power of music in the lives of Central Indiana families. In 1996, she founded the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra (MYO) because she knew first-hand that music education can transform the lives of young people and their families.
Perry was raised by her grandmother in the Fort Apache neighborhood of the Bronx in New York. When she was 12-years-old, a teacher handed her a viola and it changed her life.
Nathan Natheson was that teacher. And it wasn’t just a gift for music that he saw in Perry. “He also knew enough about me to know that I needed strong women in my life – women educators,” she says.
So he directed her to Walton High School, an all-girls academy in the New York public school system that offered rigorous education and powerful women mentors. Two teachers and a guidance counselor at Walton helped make the school a second home. She remembers going to office hours with teachers and counselors before class and remaining at the school for enrichment and additional support after the final school bell rang.
“Frieda Hollander, Marsha Landsburg and Jeanne DeMotes opened their classrooms to me. They gave me opportunities. They empowered me to understand whatever I put my mind to, I could accomplish it,” says Perry.
That was the philosophy she brought to MYO. But unlike similar youth music programs in other cities, this orchestra invites parents and other caring adults to learn to play music, too. Perry believes that by connecting more deeply with families, an organization can have greater impact on improving the lives of those families and the neighborhoods where they live.
“Without Ms. Perry, I would have just been average,” says a former student. “She puts a piece of herself into everybody who is in MYO, whether a parent or student. When you play that music, you play to her."
Though retired, Perry continues to mentor musicians and music teachers. And she’s keeping a close eye on the challenges and opportunities facing Central Indiana. “My wish is that people will learn to assume less about one another. Stay away from negative influences. Listen. Be open. Be genuinely curious about one another and the neighborhoods where we all live. There is so much to learn, and it can help us be better when we are ready to give back.”