Twice a week in the Lockerman Bundy Elementary School in West Baltimore, young students gather in a room with a variety of musical instruments and are guided through the music of classical masters by experienced instructors. The classes are part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program, and it's changing lives. These kids are excelling in school, with better grades and test scores than the citywide average.
Baltimore's academic proficiency levels for elementary schoolers are abysmally low, with only 14 percent of fourth graders scoring proficient or higher in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They clearly reflect an environment that is not conducive to providing a quality education. When elementary school students are not proficient in learning to read, or in learning the basic analytical skills taught by arithmetic, for example, they will likely remain behind for the rest of their academic careers, setting them up for challenges and difficulties later in life.
The OrchKids program, the brainchild of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's conductor Marin Alsop, offers a gleam of light in this otherwise dark scene. It offers some clues into how classical music can be used to help low income children — especially children of color who may face additional social stigmas and prejudices — succeed in school.
The values of such a program, which is privately funded by the BSO through grants and donations, are many.
First, it teaches students that there are people in the world who believe in them. By entrusting students with a musical instrument and taking the time to teach them how to play it, students feel like they are worthwhile. This is especially important for students who come from single-parent homes or homes where parents work multiple jobs and are unable to spend time with their children. By practicing a musical instrument, students additionally learn skills applicable to academics — patience, perseverance and so on. Those skills then translate to the classroom: "84 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," this newspaper reported. And the program's dual status as a during- and after- school program gives the children a place to stay if their parent or parents are working during the evening.
I have studied classical piano since I was 5 and can speak to the sense of personal achievement I felt the first time I performed on stage. I had studied Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for months, and as I sat on stage in my little suit and played, I felt like I could do anything. So do the OrchKids, who are buoyed by their musical achievements and setting goals they never before considered — like graduating from high school. Another benefit of the OrchKids program — and free public music education for children generally — is that it exposes more black kids to the classical music world, which is largely white and lacking African-American voices. We rarely see black composers' music on major symphony programs, and we rarely see black performers on stage.
Studying a classical instrument is too expensive for most low income students, and in Baltimore, most of those students are black. These students aren't given the opportunity to discover and study classical music in public schools, denying them a crucial piece of the American experience. How can we call American classical music "American" without the black voice, and without the black representation in orchestras?
OrchKids is still a relatively small program, but it holds limitless potential. Let's rally behind Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and work to create similar programs in other American cities. Let's support a free classical music education for children. Let's do this not only to provide these students with a means of expressing themselves regardless of color or income bracket, but also to improve our society in so doing.
Thomas Erik Nielsen is a freshman at Columbia University. His email is email@example.com.