Editors note: In the print edition of this story, the “All-State Orchestra” was erroneously referred to as the “All-State Band.” This version has been corrected.
Emiliano Carrera-Ybanez dreamed of joining the All-State Orchestra. Every year the group attracts the most talented high school musicians around the state, and as a sophomore at Bryan High School in 2017, Carrera-Ybanez hoped he could be among them. But to be the best of the best usually means money for private lessons and access to quality instruments. Carrera-Ybanez never had formal lessons outside of the time he spent assembled in a classroom with dozens of other kids. Up until that point, YouTube was his go-to source for violin information. The audition music for All-State seemed out of reach.
That’s about when Judy Divis came into the picture. The longtime Omaha Symphony violist knew the school’s music teacher, lived in the area and had sent her own kids to Bryan. She knew money was tight — getting kids’ instruments to sound good requires resources that can be scarce for parents and school budgets.
That’s when she had an idea. What if someone else could cover the cost?
That initial idea is what is today called Good Vibrations, a nonprofit that provides Omaha’s low-income schools with new or repaired instruments while also bringing together students and mentors from the Omaha Chamber Music Society.
For Carrera-Ybanez, who is now studying music performance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Good Vibrations cemented the once unimaginable.
“I really just owe it all to the Good Vibrations program … all these accomplishments that I’ve had … The Good Vibrations program gave me the first step and everything else just fell into place,” Carrera-Ybanez said.
The project grew out of Divis’ work with the Omaha Chamber Music Society. Founded in 2000, the society set a goal of bringing full-length, low-cost performances by top local musicians to underserved areas. Divis, then the nonprofit’s acting vice president of education, thought to take it a step further and bring Omaha’s best players to the classrooms of local Title 1 schools. Title 1 schools receive additional funding from the Nebraska Department of Education, due to having high percentages of the student body that come from low-income backgrounds. Omaha Public Schools, a district of 87 schools, has 73 schools that are Title 1 eligible.
“Especially the first time [the symphony musicians] come, the kids are, like, mouths open … amazed,” said Rudolf Semar, the music teacher at Bryan Middle School.
“They go nuts,” Divis said.
The aim of bringing the professionals in, a program called Music Mentors, isn’t a one-off performance, though. Rather, Divis hopes students and players form relationships that lead to more effective learning beyond the classroom.
But there were problems inside the classroom to address. During the visits, Divis noticed the kids were playing with stringed instruments in various states of disrepair. She thought of her experience as a young musician.
As a child, Divis was encouraged by her father to follow music. He brought up the family on a tight budget, but always made sure Divis had the instrument to follow her passion.
“Every time I opened up my violin case, I knew that somebody cared about me — because the instrument was beautiful,” she said. “And I knew [my father] couldn’t afford that, but he made sure it happened … This is what I want to do for kids.”
So in 2018, Divis founded Good Vibrations, which professionally repairs and refurbishes student-owned instruments from these schools, and procures donated and restored instruments to give to those who can’t afford to buy their own. It has worked on over 200 instruments since its inception.
For the kids whose instruments get fixed via Good Vibrations, the process begins with a conversation. Divis sits with each student, examines the instrument and has the student type a record of its condition.
“No matter what kind of shape the instrument is in, I treat it like gold,” Divis said. “Because to those kids, that’s what it is.”
Good Vibrations works with Sarah Kluge (née Gray), a professional luthier with a specialization in string instrument restoration and maintenance in order to service each of the orchestra instruments that work their way through the program.
The investment means a lot more than making the instrument look and sound better. Getting good instruments and seeing good players is an investment in kids’ confidence.
That was Carrera-Ybanez’s experience. He began his junior year in the fall of 2018, when Divis introduced him to Kevin Tompkins, a violinist with the Omaha Symphony. Tompkins gave Carrera-Ybanez private lessons for the next two years until he graduated, and Good Vibrations found sponsors to foot the bill. The results came quickly.
“After taking lessons — it was just two months at that point … [The audition music for All-State] seemed almost way too easy for what I was thinking just a couple weeks prior — that I wouldn’t be able to play it at all,” Carrera-Ybanez said. “That’s also when my confidence started growing.”
For Carrera-Ybanez’s lessons, Good Vibrations also outfitted him with a high-quality violin as a loan.
“They handed me the instrument, and it sounded completely different. It sounded — alive, in a way. Something that could touch people’s emotions,” Carrera-Ybanez said.
Carrera-Ybanez took that instrument to the All-State Orchestra in his junior and senior years at Bryan, and to perform as concertmaster (the principal violinist) in the All-City Orchestra.
“They saw some potential in me that I couldn’t see in myself,” Carrera-Ybanez said.
As a senior, he also performed a solo debut alongside the Omaha Symphony. After that performance, Divis essentially gifted Carrera-Ybanez the violin he’d been playing for the past two years. He paid a small fee — a fraction of the instrument’s value — to hold onto it.
“This costs more than a car,” Divis told him, “so take care of it.”
As Good Vibrations has grown, its services continue to include classroom visits from symphony musicians as well as educator workshops on string instrument care, and even private lessons for teachers who don’t have backgrounds in strings.
And things only seem to be getting better, Divis and luthier Kluge said. Just this past summer, KVNO Radio, a local classical station, reached out to Divis to set up an instrument donation drive that ultimately exceeded expectations and brought in 80 instruments to the nonprofit.
With those donated instruments, Good Vibrations is experimenting with servicing more than just strings. It’s also been able to donate a variety of instruments, including band instruments and even a banjo, to students and educational programs. Even donated instruments in conditions too poor to restore, Good Vibrations has found ways to use them — such as renting them as props to local theaters.
This past May, Good Vibrations and Sarah Gray Restoration acquired a suite in the Flatiron Building in downtown Omaha, under funding from a foundation called SEAK, which connects resources to various nonprofits to support outstanding local musical artists.
This new space, called the Flatiron Luthier Cooperative, is the first permanent home for Good Vibrations. It is located at the western end of the Flatiron Building, and includes Kluge’s workshop; a larger, mostly open space outfitted with a shiny Yamaha baby grand piano (another recent donation); and a nook with wire shelves housing roughly 100 instruments waiting to be serviced or distributed to students. A flier for the nonprofit, signed by the Beach Boys, hangs on one of the walls.
Divis and Kluge envision it becoming a space for rehearsals, small gatherings and more as they continue to add the final touches.
Carrera-Ybanez, a third-year student at UNO pursuing a double major in music performance and biology, credits Good Vibrations for making his budding career possible.
“It gave me confidence to play, and showed me that I am capable of playing at the collegiate level,” said Carrera-Ybanez, who plans to graduate in 2025.
As for Semar, since he initially welcomed Good Vibrations into his classroom, he has joined the board of the Omaha Chamber Music Society, which hopes to expand the ways it promotes access to music education. Other schools the society has recently worked with include Fontanelle Elementary, Marrs Middle and Omaha North and Omaha South high schools. Just recently, the nonprofit donated 20 instruments to the North Omaha Music and Arts Academy.
For Semar, the value of Good Vibrations’ services goes beyond musical. Accessibility affects one’s self-esteem. And when you help empower students it leads to more recognition and inclusion in the community.
“When the students see five or six professional musicians from the Omaha Symphony come to their school — and give their time, and their talents, and their teaching — I think what it says to them is that these professionals think what you are doing is important,” Semar said. “I think that says a lot to these kids, and that can’t be overstated.
“There are a lot of things that happen in a kid’s life that … make them feel insignificant. But this is, like, a big thing — for you. This is for you,” he added.
Divis also emphasizes the more personal role that she hopes Good Vibrations can play.
“I really don’t care if [the kids] ever play again,” she said. “In their file of memories, I just want anything that has to do with music to be in the positive category. Because when you get to be at my stage in the game, those are the things that matter the most.”
You can visit www.omahachambermusic.org/good-vibrations, or reach out to Divis at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to connect with the program.
Isaak Belongia is an Omaha writer and musician. He attended North High School and recently graduated from Colorado College where he studied Music and German.