Beyond Vassar

Dream a Little Dream

By Virginia Perrin

Vassar Time-Out grants change lives. Just ask Marin County, California, resident Jane Kramer ’78.

An anonymous alumna established Time-Out grants more than 20 years ago to enable Vassar alums age 40 and over to “make a career change or take time out to pursue a strongly desired endeavor.” After receiving the grant for 2003–2004, Kramer took a leave from a research position, returned to her first love—music—and never looked back. Now the executive director of a music program serving children in a low-income neighborhood of San Rafael, California, she also plays oboe and English horn with the American Philharmonic/Sonoma and other local orchestras. According to Kramer, the grant “helped me get more to who I am.”

Kramer, who grew up in Miami Beach, Florida, had been an accomplished oboist in her youth. However, she let music fall by the wayside in college, opting instead to major in psychology at Vassar, where she developed an interest in comparative international health-care policy. She went on to earn a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a PhD in health policy from the University of California at Berkeley, and eventually became a researcher specializing in adolescent health policy at the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Along the way she married Mitch Feldman, a man she met on her junior year abroad in England (he’s currently a professor of medicine at UCSF), and had two children, Nina and Jonathan. 

Kramer never picked up the oboe in all that time, but she always considered the instrument a prized possession. Although her children had never heard her play it, she says, they always knew “if there was one thing they would save from the house if it was on fire—it was mommy’s oboe.” 

So, after reading about Time-Out grants in the Vassar Quarterly, Kramer jumped at the chance to apply. She dreamed of being able to devote herself to the oboe once again and also to found a music school. 

Kramer initially pursued only the first goal. She studied oboe with some of her music idols; took master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and across the country; studied reed-making, ear-training, and music theory; played with local chamber groups and community orchestras; and eventually went on to win three concerto competitions.

At the conclusion of her Time-Out year, Kramer set out to fulfill the second half of her vision—to establish a music school modeled on the Miami Fine Arts Music Conservatory, a program groundbreaking in its ethnic and social integration, where she first studied recorder as a child. She began by teaching recorder to elementary school students in the Canal neighborhood of San Rafael, chosen because it consists of low-income immigrant families, primarily of Latino and Asian origin. She was looking for kids who otherwise might never be able to study music.

Kramer believes that the younger kids are when they start learning music seriously, the better chance they have of becoming musically fluent. Kramer started Enriching Lives through Music (ELM;
in 2007, with 15 elementary school students. Since then, ELM has enrolled over 150 children, almost all on full scholarship. The program is based at Pickleweed Park Community Center in the heart of the Canal neighborhood and includes after-school, Saturday morning, and summer programs. All children initially study recorder, ear-training, and music theory. In the past year, the program has expanded to include a chorus program and an Orff instrumental program, which allows students’ talents to develop in natural ways. Starting next year, students who have gained basic music proficiency will be offered the opportunity to move on to other instruments. 

Kramer concludes, “The Time-Out grant has been the best thing to happen in my life—absolutely transformative. Once I went back to music, I knew there was no going back to my life before the grant. I just know this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.” 

—Virginia Perrin

For more information on the Time-Out grant, visit The next application deadline is December 10, 2010.