OrchKids lifts children up musically and academically

The sound of 150 children playing instruments — the violin, the trumpet, the oboe, the harp — spills out of every classroom, remarkably transforming an elementary school in a raggedy neighborhood of West Baltimore into a music conservatory.

It has happened every day after school for five years. Students walk past boarded-up rowhouses and jump on buses to cross town and enter a world of brightly colored walls at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary, where they are learning to read music and enjoy Bach and Mozart.


Some are kindergartners making squeaking noises and still trying to figure out which way the trumpet faces, while others are middle-schoolers so adept that their instruments have become extensions of their bodies and souls.

OrchKids, a program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has already taken flutist Asia Palmer, 12, to dozens of places she would not have gone — from the practice spaces of the Peabody Conservatory, where she spends Saturdays, to a dozen places around the city where she has performed.


But for Asia, there's never been a time like this. On behalf of OrchKids she accepted a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award at the White House on Friday and got a hug from first lady Michelle Obama.

And on Thanksgiving night, she and a couple dozen other OrchKids members will play next to the professional musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during halftime at the Ravens game.

"It feels amazing to me," she said of her OrchKids experiences. While some kids wander the streets, she said, she is making music. "I think it is important for kids to be musicians so they can be something when they grow up."

Marin Alsop, music director of the BSO, began OrchKids not just to mine the city for children who could grow into talented musicians.

"I do feel that music has already given them a broader sense of the world. When you start to see yourself mastering something so complicated [as a musical instrument], then you can see yourself mastering something else," she said.

From a small start in 2008, the program now reaches 750 city schools students and is continuing to spread from west to east as it adds one school at a time, reawakening music in schools that have been without any arts for years. Fewer than a quarter of city schools offer music programs.

Funded by the BSO, which raises the $1,200 needed per child through donations and grants, the program offers twice-weekly music classes during the school day at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary, Mary Ann Winterling Elementary, New Song Academy and Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School, beginning with the pre-kindergarten classes.

Students from New Song and Mary Ann Winterling attend the after-school program at Lockerman-Bundy. Students at Highlandtown in East Baltimore stay at that location, and someday additional schools will feed into the after-school music program there.


Most of the students attend one of the participating elementary schools, but middle-schoolers who started in the elementary grades can continue to attend through eighth grade.

The heart of the program begins after school. Students start by doing an hour of homework and then have more than two hours of music instruction before they put away their instruments for dinner at 6:15 p.m.

Some 25 to 30 music teachers also descend on the schools to teach each day. They go into classrooms for small-group instruction or set up a music stand in the corner of a hallway to work with individual children.

On a recent afternoon at Lockerman-Bundy, five little girls plucked child-size harps in the kindergarten room, a chorus learned to open their mouths to sing large vowel sounds in the cafeteria, and four violinists lifted their instruments high against their cheeks and began to draw their bows across the strings, following the instruction of BSO viola player Rebekah Newman.

The squirmy girls sometimes make instruction a challenge, but Newman said she is rewarded in those moments when she looks into their happy faces after something clicks and they are all playing together in unison. "It is the excitement of seeing and hearing it," she said.

Although there is no definitive brain research, some educators believe practicing music on a regular basis can help students do better in math. And there is some evidence that OrchKids has changed the academic trajectory of its participants.


Eighty-four percent of those students who have been in the program for more than three years passed the Maryland School Assessment in math, compared with 76 percent citywide.

OrchKids attendance rates are 98 percent and nearly a third have perfect attendance. Schoolwide chronic absenteeism has been cut in half since the program began at Lockerman-Bundy. And in a city where students move from one school to another during the school year at alarming rates, OrchKids students rarely leave their schools.

Lockerman-Bundy's principal, Kimberly Hill, said the music helps her students "overcome some of the barriers they face on the outside" of the school. "It is exciting just to see all my students participating in the performing arts," she said.

While OrchKids may hope to grow a few world-class musicians and a new generation of concertgoers and classical music lovers, it is more aimed at the BSO's commitment to extend its reach into the neighborhoods around it.

Nick Skinner, director of operations for OrchKids, said the program "is using music education as a vehicle for social change."

For Skinner, the most remarkable change in students is how they now describe their futures. When the program first started, the third-graders would say their goal was to get through middle school, but now they see themselves graduating from college.


The program has been a gift to parents as well as children, said Asia's mother, Lynette Fields, who went to Washington and watched online as Asia and the program's artistic director, Dan Trahey, accepted the award. OrchKids was one of 12 after-school arts and humanities programs to receive the 2013 award.

Fields said her daughter asked Michelle Obama what instrument she played, and when the first lady told her it's the piano, Asia invited her to come to Baltimore to play with OrchKids.

"They really love it. I don't have to make them participate in it," said Fields, whose daughter attends Franklin Square Elementary/Middle.

Ten-year-old Joshua Grandy says it is not easy learning to play an instrument or coming together with people you may not like to play with.

"Through those almost five years it has been very hard and emotional at the same time," he said. "I would be ready to fight, and then we would perform. After we performed, we were lifted."

Joshua, a decidedly precocious boy who can hum Bach, has performed at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall a few miles away and has been to Carnegie Hall. He dreams of someday walking into a conservatory of music for college with an instrument in his hand.


He's shaken hands with Ravens players and Gov. Martin O'Malley. (He's decided he will use his left hand to shake hands with regular people because he used his right hand to shake the hand of the governor.)

Alsop hopes 50,000 city children will be singing in a chorus or playing a musical instrument every year and that playing and loving classical music will be second nature even in the heart of the city's most desolate neighborhoods.

"I think in large measure when I arrived in Baltimore, it felt like the symphony wasn't connecting to the community on some fundamental levels. I believe the arts are an incredible opportunity, especially for young people, to gain self-esteem," Alsop said.