Urban Music Ed Programs Travel the Winding Road to the Concert Hall

I recently came across two separate articles profiling urban music education programs in Chicago and New York. The Seattle Times’ Martha Irvine wrote about a Chicago inner-city school striving to raise money to save its orchestra, while NPR’s Jeff Lunden reported on a young music conservatory graduate preparing his Brooklyn elementary school violin students for a Carnegie Hall performance. I spent several years working as a violin teacher in community engagement programs such as these, so I’m always pleased when these programs receive much-deserved publicity.

Lafayette Specialty School String Orchestras

The Seattle Times shares the story of the after-school string orchestras at the Lafayette Specialty School, a Chicago public school in a neighborhood where more than 90% of the students come from poverty. Many of the children and their families view the orchestra as a pathway to a better life. The program, started by the nonprofit Merit School of Music, has run into funding problems. Due to a challenging fundraising climate, Merit notified school principal Trisha Shrode that it would have to reduce its financial support from 70% of the annual cost to 60%. The school will be responsible for about $46,000, more than a $10,000 increase in cost.

Shrode hopes to make up for the gap with contributions from private donors and possibly neighborhood residents. One innovative fundraiser, “Stuck for Strings” gave students the opportunity to purchase strips of duct tape for $1 apiece and tape some generous volunteers to the wall (see video at the end of this post). A neighborhood nonprofit, Reason to Give, has nearly reached its goal of raising $5000 for the music program. So far, the various events have brought in more than $6000.

Arturs Weible, one of music teachers provided by the Merit school, joined several of the children as they participated in the culminating event of the year – a performance at Merit’s annual festival at Chicago’s prestigious Symphony Center. The children enjoyed their opportunity to perform on the big stage. After they finished, seventh-grade violinist Nidalis Burgos  skipped into the wings and shouted, “We rock!”

P.S. 75’s Violin Program

NPR did a spot on the violin program at P.S. 75, an elementary school in the immigrant and working-class neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. Nathan Schram, a recent graduate of Indiana University, is working at the school through a program designed to help classical musicians build a 21st-century career. Called the Academy, the program is a partnership between Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, the Weil Music Institute, and the New York City Department of Education. Schram joined P.S. 75’s violin teacher Zelman Bokser to work with fourth and fifth grade violin students. Recently, the teachers worked to prepare the children for the Link-Up program, in which the children would appear on stage at Carnegie Hall in a performance called “The Orchestra Sings”.

According to the NPR piece, the children “played their hearts out”. Student Lizbeth Nunez seemed excited and overwhelmed by the experience. “I was like, ‘Whoa’ – more than 1000 or 1500 people were there… And I was nervous, too, at the same time, ’cause I’d never been to Carnegie Hall, playing on stage.”

Schram discussed some of the challenges of the program, stating, “I’ve never been an educator before in my life. This has been a real adventure working with the kids. I just had my last teaching day today, and it was certainly bittersweet – it was definitely, hands down, the hardest part of the program.”

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