While challenging, Kramer’s work at UCSF lacked the emotional
gratification music gave her. “I wasn’t passionate about it,” she says.
Creating a music school in Marin addressed both issues — her need to live
an emotionally compelling life and the needs of children on the margins
for commitment and success.
In 2005, Kramer secured a grant from her undergraduate alma mater,
Vassar College, that came with the mandate to “pursue a passion and/
or take a risk.” She took a yearlong sabbatical from her work at UCSF to
devote herself “to becoming a musician again.”
“At the time, my [own] kids were pretty young. I’d wake up, I’d play
my oboe all day. It was great. The truth is I don’t think I could have done
ELM without [the grant]. I needed to reground myself in my passion for
music before I could turn my attention to the school.”
Shortly after her leave, Kramer took the first steps toward the creation
of ELM. She bought 15 plastic recorders for $5 apiece and began teaching
kids at San Pedro Elementary School in San Rafael and at what was then
called Pickleweed Park Community Center in the Canal.
She didn’t foresee what ELM has become — 120 students, 14 teachers;
at least eight classes a week in four locations (including a new six-room
space on Kerner Boulevard); a six-figure budget that pays for instruments
($800 a cello, $200–$400 a violin), transportation and salaries; and a
guest conductor from the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles who leads the
“I didn’t think it would be what it is now,” Kramer says. “I was happier
than I’d ever been just teaching music to kids who wouldn’t otherwise
have had the opportunity. I didn’t have this vision for creating orchestras.”
What opened Kramer’s eyes and led to the earliest iteration of ELM as
it is today happened in 2008 when she learned of El Sistema, the internationally acclaimed Venezuelan youth orchestra program created 43 years
ago by economist and composer Jose Antonio Abreu, who had the idea of
using classical music to improve the lives of poor children.
“When El Sistema jumped onto the international scene, I was already
doing the same things,” Kramer says — seeking “social justice through
music.” Suddenly, she envisioned a much grander program. “I applied
to the Marin Community Foundation and got a grant to start teaching
weekly violin classes.”
ELM has since grown incrementally, fueled by Kramer’s pursuit of
funding (“I love writing grant proposals”) and persistence. Over the
years, the program has added cellos and wind and brass instruments,
recruited top-notch teachers, and moved from performing in the commu-
nity center to assembling a full orchestra onstage at the Throckmorton
Theatre in Mill Valley.
If you had a family with two sisters, for
example, why would one get pregnant and drop
out of school and the other wouldn’t?