The sound of harmonized voices echoed through the halls of Lansdowne High School on Tuesday morning.
"Four, three, two," Micah Smith said while striking the keys of a piano as 25 students began to sing under his direction.
Smith is a professional musician and teacher, as well as a member of the Soulful Symphony, an 85-member orchestra comprised of mostly black and Latino musicians who perform at the Hippodrome Theatre. The group was formed in 2000 by composer and artistic director Darin Atwater.
On May 3, Lansdowne High's concert choir students will accompany the group on stage to perform two songs, "I'm Looking for a Miracle" by the Clark Sisters and Hezekiah Walker's "Every Praise."
"They're in high school, but they're really good," Smith said. "They're progressing. I'm still enforcing the need for them to put their personality in the song."
Smith is one of four artists who visit the school once a week through an artist-in-residence program provided by the Hippodrome Foundation. The program is in its third year and Lansdowne High is the only county school to offer weekly classes taught by visiting artists.
"It's always great to have working professionals come in and work with the students," said Rob Tracy, a music teacher at Lansdowne High.
The program has even expanded in the area and is now being offered on a monthly basis to students at Lansdowne Middle School.
The goal is to provide children with the opportunity to engage with music at a younger age and motivate them by giving them something to look forward to at school.
"A 'you can do it' theme is pervasive throughout the year and principals like [Lansdowne High principal] Ken Miller are appreciative of the results. With the program in place, attendance is up, students are more engaged and he is able to attract better teachers with a Hippodrome partnership in place," said Olive Waxter, director of the Hippodrome Foundation.
Tracy said the partnership was one of the reasons why he took a position at the school three years ago.
"We've made some big strides. In the last three years, this partnership with the Hippodrome has taken our performing arts program from good to great," Tracy said.
The program allows the kids to be exposed to different methods and approaches to teaching, he said.
Tracy said the program offers some students opportunities they otherwise wouldn't have.
"Some of the students in this community, because of their socioeconomic situation — they wouldn't be able to have an opportunity like this," Tracy said.
Isaac Saunders, a senior at Lansdowne High who lives in Halethorpe, wants to become a professional musician himself. He plans to attend the Boston Conservatory where he'll study music and vocal performance with an emphasis on opera.
"It's really helping me...for when I go to college for music. It's going to help me focus and become a better performer and singer," Saunders said.
Saunders said he's always wanted to sing with the Soulful Symphony, which is why he's excited about the upcoming performance.
"I can't wait to actually go to the rehearsal and sing with them for the first time," Saunders said with enthusiasm.
Smith said the feeling is mutual.
"I appreciate their time," Smith said. "The fulfillment is from a feeling I once had in high school. I miss this environment so much."
Smith, 30, attended Randallstown High School and he still lives not far from his childhood home. He said some of his best memories were from being on his high school choir.
Summer Diaz, 17, of Arbutus, was among the students singing on Tuesday. Diaz said being part of the choir is like having a second family.
"I've always loved singing, but how close we all are and supportive is what makes everyone want to stay in choir," Diaz said. "Even if you're stressed out, there's always someone there to make you feel better. We're all just very supportive of each other."
Chonteo Bevans, 17, a senior who lives in Woodlawn, said having the musicians in class, "makes it feel like us and our dreams are attainable."
"We can do whatever we set out to do because we see someone that is successful at what they're doing," Bevans said.
While students learn to refine their musical craft, they also learn important life skills.
"We are opening the opportunity for them to learn about how to communicate, how to persevere through difficult tasks — stuff they're going to need as part of their life regardless of whether they pursue a performance career, " Tracy said. "For me, it's about creating independent thinkers and confident individuals."
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