If you think putting a violin in the hands of a six-year-old sounds premature, think again.
This month, first graders at Harriet Tubman Elementary School in West Baltimore will begin OrchKids, an after-school music venture led by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and based on the Venezuelan program El Sistema. OrchKids is funded by BSO music director Marin Alsop, and Robert E. Meyerhoff and Rheda Becker.
"Most of these kids feel like cattle, so we're trying to empower them," says Dan Trahey, OrchKids program manager, music educator, and tuba player. "My goal is not for these kids to be musicians, but to show there are many pathways to be successful."
Starting this month, about 25 first-graders will meet three days a week—two days for learning the basics, like music vocabulary, and the third for starting to play instruments. By the time they're in second grade, students will have chosen a specific instrument to play in upcoming years.
"The biggest thing we're doing is starting the kids so young, basically five years ahead of the national average," Trahey says. "That came out of El Sistema."
Trahey traveled to Venezeula last March because Alsop wanted him to observe the program firsthand. El Sistema, founded in 1975 by economist José Antonio Abreu, is a music-education program that trains
disadvantaged youth to perform in orchestras around the country. The program is almost entirely funded by the Venezuelan government and has trained an estimated two
million children since its inception.
"In Venezuela, they don't have after-school programs," Trahey says. "But now kids can
create something bigger than themselves."
While there, Trahey traveled to the more impoverished outskirts of Caracas and conducted an orchestra of kids involved in El Sistema. He admired the energy the kids had and hopes the same thing will happen in Baltimore. To spur that, one of Trahey's ideas is to teach kids "bucket band," or to use upside-down buckets as percussion, something already seen on urban streets.
"It draws on the rhythms they're already hearing," Trahey says. "So they can start
playing that right off the bat."
Beyond music, OrchKids will expose students to life outside their Edmondson-Westside neighborhood. The kids will take weekend field trips to the Meyerhoff, Peabody Institute, and Irvine Nature Center. Trahey also wants to plant gardens and build an amphitheater outside of the school.
Harriet Tubman principal Yvonne L. Cunion says she's excited about the impact that OrchKids can have on her students and the neighborhood as a whole.
"The children are in need of cultural experiences," Cunion says. "If we can open our doors wider and offer people more, then we can instill pride in the community."
Says Trahey: "We just want to give the kids these balls of clay and help them shape who they really want to be."