Henning Hansen

Fifteen-year-old Henning Hanson raps away at an Adams Vibrophone, one of the $63,000 worth of instruments donated to the school by the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, during band practice Tuesday.

For more than 20 years the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra has played on percussion instruments provided free of charge by the Onalaska School District.

Late last month, after two years of planning and three months of fundraising, the LSO returned the favor and delivered more than $60,000 of percussion instruments to the school.

The instruments were part of a renewed commitment to a partnership that began more than two decades earlier.

OHS band Director Robert Coe said the arrival of the instruments was an great moment, especially for his percussionists.

“That was pretty exciting,” he said. “The kids are excited about it.”

Fifteen-year-old sophomore Henning Hanson is already taking advantage of the new instruments.

“It was really nice.” he said. “We’re getting to play on professional equipment.”

For the last four years, Hanson has made due with the instruments that were falling apart.

“We’ve always had to find and put together equipment we can use, but it’s never been good,” he said. I know it’s going to open us up to a lot of different music we can play.

The handshake deal from which the partnership was founded took place long before LSO Executive Director Tracy Gaskin joined the orchestra 12 years ago.

“No one is really sure when it started but none of us were around back then,” she said.

“For as long as I can remember, for every single concert, we’d pack up the percussion instruments on a handshake deal,” she said. “We didn’t pay rent and they always took care of their own things.”

After 20 years, the instruments were beginning to show their age and the LSO began to look at alternatives.

“Their instruments are in just horrible condition. What are we going to do?” Gaskin recalled LSO percussionist Rich MacDonald asking.

The LSO briefly considered purchasing its own instruments or partnering with the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

That changed when the orchestra discovered the La Crosse Youth Symphony Orchestra also used the school’s percussion instruments, the group decided it was only right to make the school whole again.

Coe was asked to write up a wishlist and was told to shoot for the moon.

“In February, March and April, we planned what we needed and put a list together,” he said.

That included the purchase of several instruments previously inaccessible to the school. One of the most expensive and exclusive instruments included the purchase of a marimba one.

“Very few high schools in the state have access to a marimba one,” he said.

The fundraiser kicked off in with the LSO’s June concert. During the three-day event, the orchestra raised nearly $12,000. $10,000 of that was matched by the family of Barry Blomquist and Eva Dahl. By the end of the three-month-long fundraiser, the LSO had raised more than $63,000.

“We raised every single penny we needed to get them everything on their wish list and raised an additional $8,000 for the maintenance fund,” Gaskin said. “In my 12 years of working with the LSO, this has been my proudest fundraiser.”

Coe said before the fundraiser, they’d only been able to replace one or two percussion instruments a year due to cost.

He said the LSO’s contributions have allowed the orchestra to focus on many of the other aging instruments.

“Because they were able to help us so quickly, we were able to purchase some other things,” Coe said. “For the cost of one percussion instrument, we were able to purchase four mellophones.”

The instruments are owned by the Onalaska School District. As part of an agreement, the LSO has priority use of the equipment.

Gaskin said this should not be a problem because the LSO and Onalaska don’t have concerts that conflict.

This story was updated Oct. 2.

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Tobias Mann is a reporter with the River Valley Media Group. He can be reached at tobias.mann@lee.net or at 608-791-8216.

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