GRS violinist wins Ford Musician Award for Community Service from League of American Orchestras

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI., May 18, 2017 –  Diane McElfish Helle is one of just five orchestra musicians from across the United States to receive a Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras. The program, made possible by Ford Motor Company Fund, celebrates orchestra musicians and the inspirational work they do in their communities.

McElfish Helle, a violinist, will be honored for leading the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Music for Health Initiative, a program that sends symphony musicians into area hospitals to assist with patient rehabilitation as well as to create supportive physical, emotional and spiritual experiences for patients as well as for the friends, families and providers who care for them.

With funding from the Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation, Music for Health was launched in 2013 by a group of six GRS musicians, led by McElfish Helle, at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.

“Music not only has the power to warm the heart and nourish the soul, it also has the ability to heal as well,” said Grand Rapids Symphony President and CEO Peter Perez. “Concert goers have long known that music, in the best of times, provides enlightenment, enrichment and relaxation. But in the worst of times, when people are affected by illness or injury or are recovering from stroke, brain injury or dementia, music offers comfort, support and encouragement that in some ways is even more important.”

McElfish Helle, who is completing her 37th season with the Grand Rapids Symphony, will be presented with her award at the League of American Orchestras’ 72nd National Conference in Detroit, June 6-8, and will discuss her work at an elective session for Conference delegates.

The musicians were selected by a panel of peer professionals through a competitive nomination process to receive the awards, which include a $2,500 grant to each musician, as well as an additional $2,500 grant to the musician’s home orchestra to support professional development focused on community service and engagement for musicians.

“We’re proud to recognize these talented musicians and their generous outreach into the community to help improve people’s lives,” said Jim Vella, president, Ford Motor Company Fund. “Orchestras are an essential thread in the rich cultural fabric of our communities and a joyful musical experience for people in all walks of life.”  

McElfish Helle, a native of Pittsburgh, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and a Master of Music degree from Indiana University. A member of the Grand Rapids Symphony since 1980, she performed for 20 years as a member of the symphony’s Dorian String Quartet. Since 2002, she has worked with the String Discovery Ensemble, a violin quartet offering a hands-on musical experience to fourth graders throughout the region. Creator of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s pre-concert lecture series, “Upbeat,” she has been a host and frequent lecturer since 1987.

For more than 20 years, she was an artist-faculty violin instructor at Grand Valley State University and formerly played second violin in GVSU’s quartet-in-residence, Perugino String Quartet.  In 2011, McElfish Helle was honored by the WYCA of West Michigan with their Tribute Award for the Arts.

In addition to Diane McElfish Helle, the other award recipients are:

  • Mark Dix, viola, Phoenix Symphony (AZ):

Mind Over Music, B-Sharp Music Wellness, A W.O.N.D.E.R. Project Alzheimer’s Initiative (educational and health and wellness programs)

Community Connections (free musical events in the community, including performances for the incarcerated at Lansing Correctional Facility via the Arts in Prison program)

Music and Wellness Program (live musical performances enhancing the healing process and benefiting patients, visitors, and staff in healthcare settings)

  • Peter Zlotnick, educational manager/principal timpani, Greensboro Symphony Orchestra (NC):

Keep Kids in Tune education series, including Beginning Strings and OrKIDStra (music education and social programs which reach 50,000 children, including Head Start students, in four counties)

This work takes place in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, places of worship, and wherever people gather for civic, cultural, and social engagement. Those served may include low-income/at-risk populations, homebound elderly, immigrants, veterans, prisoners, and students of all ages, as well as members of the general public who may not otherwise have access to orchestral music.

The Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service mark the second year of the League’s second partnership with Ford Motor Company Fund, which was previously the title sponsor of Ford Made in America, the largest commissioning consortium in the country’s history. Award recipients in 2016 included Penny Anderson Brill, viola, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Music and Wellness Program); Shannon Orme, bass clarinet, Detroit Symphony Orchestra (Neighborhood Residency Initiative); Jeffrey Paul, Principal Oboe, South Dakota Symphony Orchestra (Lakota Music Project); Brian Prechtl, percussion, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (OrchKids); and Beth Vandervennet, cello, Oakland Symphony (Music for Excellence Program [MUSE]).

About the Grand Rapids Symphony

Organized in 1930, the Grand Rapids Symphony is nationally recognized for the quality of its concerts and educational programs. Led by Music Director Marcelo Lehninger, Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt and Associate Conductor John Varineau, nine concert series are presented, featuring a wide range of music and performance styles. More than 400 performances are given each year, touching the lives of some 200,000, nearly half of whom are students, senior citizens and people with disabilities all reached through extensive education and community service programs. Affiliated organizations include the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus; Grand Rapids Youth Symphony and Classical Orchestra; and Grand Rapids Symphony Youth Choruses. GRS provides the orchestra for performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Ballet and sponsors the biennial Grand Rapids Bach Festival.

About Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services

Ford Motor Company Fund and Community Services – the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company – works with community and global partners to advance driving safety, education and community life. Ford Motor Company Fund has operated for more than 67 years with ongoing funding from Ford Motor Company. Ford Driving Skills for Life is free, interactive, hands-on safety training focused on skill development and driving techniques, while addressing inexperience, distractions and impaired driving. Innovation in education is encouraged through Ford Blue Oval Scholars, Ford Driving Dreams, Ford Next Generation Learning and other innovative programs that enhance high school learning and provide college scholarships and university grants. The Ford Volunteer Corps enlists more than 30,000 Ford employees and retirees each year to work on local projects that strengthen their communities and improve people’s lives in more than 40 countries around the world.

About the League of American Orchestras

The League of American Orchestras leads, supports, and champions America’s orchestras and the vitality of the music they perform. Its diverse membership of more than 2,000 organizations and individuals across North America runs the gamut from world-renowned symphonies to community groups, from summer festivals to student and youth ensembles, from conservatories to libraries, from businesses serving orchestras to individuals who love symphonic music. The only national organization dedicated solely to the orchestral experience, the League is a nexus of knowledge and innovation, advocacy, and leadership advancement. Its conferences and events, award-winning Symphony magazine, website, and other publications inform people around the world about orchestral activity and developments. Founded in 1942 and chartered by Congress in 1962, the League links a national network of thousands of instrumentalists, conductors, managers and administrators, board members, volunteers, and business partners.

To learn more about the Grand Rapids Symphony, please visit the website or

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Grand Rapids Symphony gratefully acknowledges Ford Motor Company Fund and the League of American Orchestras for their generous support of this program