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STRIKING A CHORD WITH KIDS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Through an open window of Lockerman Bundy Elementary School comes the familiar urban refrain of a police siren, but it doesn't distract the students intently practicing their violins, cellos and basses. They make their own compelling sound, as a teacher gently gets them to focus on articulating an "A" in unison.

On another floor of the school, an instructor demonstrates to budding brass players how to shape their mouths correctly when they start expelling breath into the instruments. Around the corner, four more of the predominantly African-American students focus on flutes, trying to duplicate the neat progression from A down to E-flat that their teacher demonstrates.

It's pushing 6 p.m. by this point, but the young musicians-to-be show no sign of weariness. They're used to spending after-school hours, in addition to time during the regular school day, hard at work as part of OrchKids, the educational initiative launched last year by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with seed money from music director Marin Alsop.

The program began with 30 participants at Harriet Tubman Elementary. That school's closure brought OrchKids and most of the Tubman students to Lockerman Bundy this fall, where the project seems to have taken root firmly - 180 youths, pre-K through second grade, are involved. An additional grade will be added each year.

"I can't say enough how much the students love OrchKids," says Principal Cynthia Cunningham. "I know it has helped with getting them to come to school and getting them to turn in their homework. They know this is something special that is happening to them, not to everybody at every school."

OrchKids was inspired by a nationwide music education project in Venezuela known as el Sistema. That program generated an abundance of youth orchestras and was responsible for nurturing acclaimed conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who is now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"It's not just about teaching music," Alsop says of OrchKids. "It's about joining the community and giving kids a sense of possibility. Playing violin ... may not be something they had thought about before."

They might not have thought much about completing school, either. In the fall of 2008, when the inaugural OrchKids members were surveyed about their futures, only 15 percent envisioned getting past elementary school. By spring of 2009, 55 percent saw themselves going a long way, including to college.

"Classical music gives kids a skill set," says Alsop. "You have to have discipline, you have to motivate yourself to practice, you have to learn how to work with a team. Those skills can help you with any kind of achievement in society."

Adds Dan Trahey, program manager of OrchKids: "When we started last year, most of the kids couldn't tell us what they wanted to be when they grew up. Now, a lot of them say they want to be music teachers or musicians, as well as doctors. Their feeling of self-worth is a lot better."

They certainly seem to have a good time.

In a class held during regular school hours on music literacy - the basics of notation, rhythm, harmony and the like - teacher Eric Rasmussen leads a group of mostly second-graders in a song about raking leaves, getting them to pick up some key points about syncopation in the process.

He promises that they'll soon do some dancing, which sets off a chorus of "Yay," but first there's more rhythmic study. After passing out pairs of blue sticks to the students, Rasmussen switches on a CD player and a young Ella Fitzgerald is swinging to "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." The kids alternate between beating out the jazz rhythms and pretending to play violin with the sticks. When Fitzgerald's band members on the recording shout out, "So do we, so do we," the OrchKids shout out along with them, right on cue.

Afterward, Rasmussen wants to keep the focus on rhythms a while longer and is met with a couple of unhappy looks, a few yawns, a head or two down on the desk. The teacher calls out a complicated beat pattern, the sort a jazz player might slip into an improvisation, and soft voices, most of them with great accuracy, repeat the sequences back to him.

"Don't get frustrated," Rasmussen says. "You know me. I give you something that's a little bit harder than you can do sometimes."

Finally, the dancing. The kids quickly sweep the chairs to the side of the room and grab brightly colored, lightweight cloths in both hands. The CD player pours out richly orchestrated ballet music by Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky and Rasmussen tells the students, "Conduct with your whole body." The cloths flutter as his class complies.

When the music shifts into some hot jazz, the teacher leads the kids in chorus-line moves that include hearty jumps in time to the punched-out chords on the recording.

Before the kids file out, Rasmussen warns some of the less responsive ones that they can go home when the official school day ends. Afterward, he explains: "The punishment here is not coming to the after-school program."

Shirley Dessesow, the parent/student liaison at Lockerman Bundy, confirms that. "If you tell a child he or she can't go to OrchKids, you get tears," she says.

The well-maintained West Baltimore school, with its mural-decorated halls, is something of an oasis in an area that has its share of the city's crime.

"There's a lot of drug action in the area," Dessesow says. "The kids know it and see it; they can tell you who's who and what's going on."

She sees OrchKids as one more way Lockerman Bundy can "do something positive in the neighborhood, something to change the topic at the dinner table. Parents are enthusiastic about this program," Dessesow says. "The teachers are friendly and patient with the kids; the children can relate to them. We're blessed to have them here. And the kids leave here excited. They're not dragging."

Among those students is 8-year-old Deshay Banks, who chose a violin to play last year, "but my hand needed something a little more bigger, and I changed to cello. When I grow up, I can become a famous cello player," she says.

This potential future Yo-Yo Ma, who has three siblings in the program, beams when she holds the cello. Teachers see potential in Deshay sharing that enthusiasm as a mentor for younger kids at the school.

She only has one regret so far: "I can't take the cello home yet," she says.

Being responsible for taking care of an instrument at home will be a big step for OrchKids members, a step Trahey expects to see taken gradually in the future.

The students already have shown they can deal with tough choices. They can't do their OrchKids activities if they don't keep up with all their regular lessons.

"I'm doing much better at school," says 9-year-old Tyrone McCory. "To me, it's important to hurry up with my homework so I can play the bass. I'm going to be a bass player."

The bonding between students and instruments can be quick and tight.

"They don't want to put them down," Cunningham says. "I had a pre-K child crying when it was time to put down the violin. I told her, 'There's always tomorrow,' but she just said, 'I need to play it now.' "

Alsop has seen that sort of excitement at the school, as well.

"It's really special when you're there and see the kids connecting to their instruments and the teachers," the conductor says. "It gives me goose bumps. It's the small moments that make you realize we can all have an impact on our world."

Alsop and BSO musicians take part in OrchKids activities at Lockerman Bundy whenever they can. And the students get to take trips to Meyerhoff Symphony Hall to interact with the pros in rehearsal and casual settings, and to attend concerts. Bonds are already being formed.

Given the lack of exposure to classical music in many public schools, OrchKids clearly has the potential to make a difference.

"You have to take the long view," Alsop says. "I hope to see orchestras in 20 years reflecting the diversity of our communities."

Maybe sooner, if Trahey can realize his bold dreams - and find more funding.

"There are 80,000 kids in Baltimore who need to get this program," he says. "Then we need to get to D.C. and Philly. This is a movement, not a Baltimore Symphony movement, but a worldwide movement."

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