A Great Day In Baltimore: OrchKids

The “Highway to Nowhere” cuts a wide path through West Baltimore, six lanes across and little more than a mile long. The notorious stretch of Route 40 was once part of a grand plan for an east-west expressway across town. Neighborhoods were leveled and thousands were displaced during the 1970s to accommodate it. But city leaders changed gears, scrapped the plan, and construction ground to a halt, leaving behind an oversized monument to wrong-headed urban planning and plenty of animosity.

Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School sits at the end of the “Highway to Nowhere.” It’s located at the corner of N. Pulaski and W. Mulberry Streets, an area that, if you’re just driving through, seems the embodiment of a “nowhere” destination. Weathered plywood covers the windows and doors of numerous storefronts and houses, a breeze nudges fast-food bags down the sidewalks, and hard-looking characters take up positions along the surrounding streets. On a recent afternoon, a man staggered and then crawled up Mulberry on all fours, as a crossing guard and others watched.

It could be the setting for an episode of The Wire, and, in fact, the scene that opened the series was filmed just a few blocks away, at Lexington and Fulton. In it, a corpse lay in the street and a detective gathered shell casings, as youngsters watched from a nearby stoop.

Around here, children don’t hesitate when asked to describe their neighborhood, tossing out words like “gangster,” “fighting,” “cursing,” “drugs,” and “shooting” in rapid succession. “It scares me,” says a young girl, between handclaps of a complex variation on Miss Mary Mack.

From outside, Lockerman-Bundy exudes institutional blandness. A squat, two-story building painted tan and brown with narrow windows and reinforced metal doors, it could be mistaken for a correctional facility if not for a thin strip of a mural along two of its walls. The mural depicts flowers and exotic animals against a turquoise background and has a pair of messages painted on it: “We’re All in This Together” and “Wake Up!”

Inside, the environment changes radically. Vibrant, music-themed murals and photo collages of smiling children holding musical instruments cover the central hallway, which is mostly empty after 3:30 dismissal. Curiously, the sound of classical music wafts from the far end of the hall.

A smiling girl, wearing a white shirt and navy-blue skirt, appears at my side. “Can I help you?” she asks, before extending a hand and introducing herself as “Ashanti.”

After hearing I’m interested in learning about the school’s music program, Ashanti identifies herself as an “OrchKid” and leads me down the hall to the gymnasium, where about 30 children—between the ages of 6 and 11—are playing on the basketball court. But they aren’t dribbling and shooting; they’re sitting in rows, looking intently at sheet music on stands, and playing violins, cellos, clarinets, flutes, trombones, tubas, and trumpets. Some of the cellists are barely bigger than their instruments.

Ashanti pulls a viola from its case and nods toward the group: “These kids are all OrchKids, too,” she says, before grabbing a bow and joining the string section.

Lockerman-Bundy is ground zero for OrchKids, which most folks know as the BSO-sponsored, Marin Alsop-approved, after-school music program. But it’s much more than that, with an ambitious mission that goes far beyond substituting Beethoven for Beyoncé. It’s equal parts grassroots activism, community organizing, and youth-development initiative, with some wide-eyed idealism and street-wise swagger in the mix.

Spend some time at Lockerman-Bundy, and you’ll definitely think twice about calling it an “after-school music program,” which sounds quaint considering all it does and what it’s up against.

OrchKids launched in September 2008 to great fanfare, when Alsop, in her second year as BSO music director, pledged $100,000 (of the $500,000 she won as a 2005 MacArthur “genius” grant recipient) to get it off the ground. It was initially a pilot program for a few dozen first-graders, but Alsop envisioned a multi-year curriculum and expansion to additional sites.

Some observers questioned the wisdom of undertaking such an ambitious project when the economy was tanking, but Alsop’s response to the doubters shows that the OrchKids swagger started early, and it started at the top. “Economic hard times are going to come and go,” she told NPR in early 2009. “But our responsibility doesn’t come and go. I mean, just because we hit a major speed bump, I think that’s the moment to step up even further and be bold and do something important. . . . This was the best $100,000 I’ve ever spent.”

Alsop’s confidence was rooted in two things: the success of a Venezuelan music program called El Sistema, which OrchKids was modeled after, and her belief that a tuba player from the Midwest could implement it in West Baltimore.

Dan Trahey is that tuba player.

A native of Traverse City, Michigan, the 34-year-old Trahey was classically trained at Peabody (class of 2000), where he distinguished himself as a player and community builder. After graduating, he began teaching a class at the Conservatory called Community Engagement and Creativity and co-founded Tuned-In, a Peabody program that, like OrchKids, provides greater access to classical music for city children.

Trahey was connecting Peabody—a notoriously insular institution—to the community at large, at a time when Alsop arrived at the BSO with a similar mission. “Dan and I are kindred spirits, with similar leadership styles and artistic temperaments,” says Alsop. “We’re both ‘let’s get it done’ people who can deal with challenging bureaucracies to keep things going forward.”

They also shared an admiration for El Sistema, though Alsop notes that Trahey “knew a lot more about it than I did. I knew it more from the concept of mentoring, but Dan really filled me in on the rest.”

Ask Trahey about El Sistema and here’s what he’ll tell you: “The primary focus of the program is democratic access to music education. It’s not thinking about music as a luxury item, but thinking about it as a human right, a human need, something that everyone should have access to. We believe music can be used as a vehicle for social change. In a nutshell, that’s the entire program.”

Then, he’ll recount the El Sistema origin story, which has become downright mythic over the years.

As the story goes, José Antonio Abreu, an economist and frustrated classical musician, wanted to provide opportunities for Venezuelan youngsters to play orchestral music. This was in the mid-1970s, when the country’s orchestras were comprised almost exclusively of Europeans and Americans, and Abreu extended an open invitation for students to rehearse at a Caracas garage. Just 11 students showed up the first day. But 25 came the following day, and 46 came the day after that. By the end of the month, Abreu was rehearsing 75 musicians and knew he was onto something.

From there, Abreu recruited additional instructors and students and began replicating the model at sites around the city. El Sistema was born, and music-education opportunities for children, many of them impoverished, increased exponentially. El Sistema eventually garnered state support and spread throughout the country, spawning more than 100 youth orchestras, and engaging over 450,000 students.

It also became something of a global phenomenon, thanks to Abreu’s commitment and charisma (check out his TED talk sometime) and high-profile alums like Gustavo Dudamel, now music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As a result, El Sistema-inspired programs began popping up in cities around the U.S.

OrchKids was one of the first.

“When we started, everybody thought we were cops,” says Trahey, sitting in the cramped office he shares with OrchKids program manager, Nick Skinner, a childhood friend, as well as a fellow Midwesterner and Peabody grad.

“For the first six months or so, people were very standoff-ish,” adds Skinner. “I remember coming in all excited, thinking, ‘I’m gonna change the world.’ Then we had our first parent meeting, and not one parent showed up.”

“Some of our parents feel like they’ve been screwed by the system, and that includes the public school system,” explains Trahey. “These parents may not want to walk into a school building, just like they wouldn’t necessarily want to walk into a police station. They’re suspicious, because they feel these big institutions, even when they’re trying to affect positive change, don’t always have their best interests at heart.”

You don’t have to look farther than the highway outside the front door to understand that.

And there’s another key factor to consider. “We’re black, and they aren’t,” says Shirley Dessesow, Lockerman-Bundy’s parent liaison, noting that the student body is nearly 100 percent African-American. Ninety-five percent live below the poverty line. Dessesow, who was on the committee that okayed bringing OrchKids to the school, recalls such issues being raised, sometimes vehemently, at committee meetings. “It got hot, for awhile,” she says, “and people were asking, ‘How are these guys going to relate to our children?’”

“We were leery of them,” says Lynette Fields, who now has three children in the program, “because they wanted to come in and teach our kids, and we didn’t know them.”

But Lockerman-Bundy ultimately brought Trahey and Skinner aboard, because, as Dessesow says, “They were offering our kids an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have, and we were looking for something in the afternoon that would keep them safe and off the streets.”

Besides that, “it was free,” notes Fields.

But it took about two years, Trahey says, “to turn the corner, where people started to really understand what we were doing and trust us. It was a slow process, which grew out of us being here day in and day out and proving that this is a safe place for them to go.”

“As the months went on, we could see they were committed,” says Fields. “You could see that they cared about the kids and were sincere about what they were doing.”

It’s a close-knit neighborhood, and word got around that the two white guys weren’t cops, and they actually cared about the kids. Trahey and Skinner knew things had changed when parents—knowing both men were single and living on their own—started bringing them plates of food at the end of the day.

And those parent meetings? These days, they get an average of 200 people through the door.

But Dessesow notes something even more telling: “Just look at the kids,” she says. “You can look at kids and see how they feel about a person, and these kids love Dan and Nick.”

You can see it as they walk the halls at Lockerman-Bundy, both of them kid magnets. Students call out, “Mr. Dan, Mr. Nick,” and, before you know it, the two men are listening to a story, mediating a dispute, or discussing the subtleties of a Tchaikovsky piece. It doesn’t take long to recognize that they’ve shouldered responsibilities beyond what any title or job description might suggest.

“I don’t think anyone actually knows our job titles, because we wear so many hats,” says Skinner. “We do everything from the administrative side and all the paperwork to other aspects of the job that involve being a social worker, doctor, community activist, transportation coordinator, teacher, classroom manager, and disciplinarian.

“It’s no 9 to 5. We don’t think of it that way, because it’s become such a big part of our lives. OrchKids isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle.”

It’s a lifestyle for the kids, too. The program—which has expanded to three other elementary schools: Mary Ann Winterling, New Song, and Highlandtown—runs from pre-K through fifth grades, and one of the first things an OrchKid learns is how to shake hands. Before the first-graders even pick up instruments, they’re taught to extend a hand to whomever they’re addressing, look them in the eye, and introduce themselves. So when Ashanti introduces herself to me, it isn’t exceptional—it’s expected.

First-year OrchKids also play games that improve listening skills, sing in a choir, and do arts and crafts, before picking up their first instrument: a bucket—specifically, a bright orange, five-gallon bucket from Home Depot that retails for seven bucks and doubles as a drum when turned upside down. Their instructor is BSO percussionist Brian Prechtl, who, on any given day, can be found in the bucket band room surrounded by youngsters drumming and shouting things like, “One, two, three, four, five! Bucket band don’t take no jive! Six, seven, eight, nine, ten! Back it up and do it again!”

The buckets come first, because as Prechtl notes, “the kids can play immediately and sound great. It might take them six months to sound pretty good on the other instruments, but they sound good on the buckets right away. That immediate gratification and success is important, because it sets the tone for what’s to come.”

Each OrchKids level is designated by the name of a musical luminary and involves certain privileges. Andre and Asia Palmer, two of Lynette Fields’s children, explain:

Asia: The first-graders are called the Miss Marins [as in Alsop]. The first year, you don’t even play instruments at the beginning.

Andre: You’re in the choir and bucket band.

Asia: But the second year you’re a Beethoven and get to choose your instrument.

Andre: I chose cello, because it has a low sound like a bass.

Asia: I liked the flute, because it has a pretty sound, and it’s easy to carry.

Andre: I carry mine on my back.

Asia: When we became Tchaikovskys, we could take our instruments home on Fridays. That’s the third year. And when we became Mahlers, in our fourth year, we could take them home all the time.

Andre: So we get to play our instruments every day after school.

Asia: We still get to do that, and now we’re at the highest level—the Jacksons.

Andre: Like Michael Jackson.

It’s not uncommon to hear Trahey, Skinner, or one of the 42 part-time OrchKids instructors announce, “I need all Mahlers in the gymnasium,” or “Tchaikovskys should report to the cafeteria.” And then the Mahlers and Tchaikovskys line up and head to their respective spots.

All OrchKids take these designations and privileges seriously, especially those having to do with instruments. Soon after the program expanded to Mary Winterling last fall, a group of cheering children greeted the truck delivering instruments to the school. On a Monday morning last October, the arrival of violins, trombones, and such—all of them donated by Music & Arts, a Frederick-based retailer—caused quite a stir amongst the Miss Marins. They helped carry the instruments into the school, all of them looking proud and excited by possibility.

Trahey recognized that look and keenly understood how such instruments can change lives. It happened to him.

In the sixth grade, Trahey, who’s from a working-class family of non-musicians, told his parents he wanted to play saxophone. Right away, his father balked at the cost and told him, “Hell, no.” Not long after, his parents were at a local bar/club, struck up a conversation with the owner, and told him their son wanted to play the horn. The guy said, “Hold on, I’ll be back in a second,” and returned with a tuba, which he gave them.

Back home, the tuba didn’t go over well with Dan, who was devastated it wasn’t a sax. But when he played it, the effect was magical, producing “an immediate transformation,” he says, a transformation that led to better grades, a spot in the high- school marching band, and even a scholarship to Peabody.

When he left for Peabody, Trahey bought a new tuba and passed along the old one to his brother, who used it to get a full scholarship to Northeastern. And his brother passed along the same tuba to a friend, who used it to get into the Coast Guard Academy.

OrchKids can choose whatever instrument they like. They’ll learn to play by ear, until written music gets introduced in third grade. They’ll play in groups and get lessons from the part-time faculty and volunteers, many of them Peabody grads and instructors. “But we always emphasize passion first, precision second,” notes Trahey, “because this approach to music making is social. We don’t want our students locked away by themselves in practice rooms. We want them working as a group and growing as a community.”

“It’s my job to get them to work as one unit with discipline and uniformity,” says choir director Dion Cunningham. “The singing pulls them together, and the morals and lessons they learn in the process will help them throughout their lives.”

They’ll eventually rehearse together for three-hour stretches, mentor younger kids, and collaborate with visiting musicians from around the world. Last year, for example, a handful of OrchKids played Argentinian tango music with a Canadian group called the Mashed Potangos, which seems totally out of place for West Baltimore—that is, until bassoonist Mateen Milan tells me his favorite composer is tango master Astor Piazzolla.

They’ll also earn the right to perform at events such as the BSO Gala and Artscape. For many, it will be a first foray out of the neighborhood to previously foreign territory like the Meyerhoff and Peabody. “That’s when I realized this program really could take them places,” says Fields. “My kids are almost overwhelmed before these shows. They’ll be calling up family members and telling them, ‘Come to this place. We’re going to be performing here today.’”

On July 12, Asia, Andre, and 17 other OrchKids performed with Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd fame, at the Verizon Center. The D.C. date was part of Waters’s blockbuster The Wall tour, which, according to Billboard magazine, “will go down as one of the biggest tours in history both in terms of box-office performance and creative ambition.”

At each stop, Waters’s people recruit a local group to reprise the children’s chorus in the hit song, “Another Brick in the Wall.” Trahey got the call a few days before the show and started rehearsing the kids, who went on to perform the song in front of 20,000 people.

The next morning at Lockerman-Bundy, the kids are still buzzing from the experience and talking about meeting people from England, eating pizza backstage, being awed by the lights and sound, and getting treated "like rock stars."

“It felt like we were famous, because everyone was cheering for us,” says Courtney Crutcher.

“Seeing so many people made my eyes pop,” says Deshae Banks. “I was scared before we went onstage, but after we got out there, it was a piece of cake.”

“He [Waters] told us to just have fun, and we did,” says Joseph Wilkerson, still wearing the “Fear Builds Walls” T-shirt he and the other OrchKids wore onstage. “I want to do it again.”

Then, Trahey distributes autographed photos Waters sent along for the kids. Andre reads the personalized inscription on his picture, “To Andre,” and smiles. All the others are inscribed, too.

“How did he know all our names?” asks Crutcher.

“You’re OrchKids, aren’t you?” replies Trahey.

Those sorts of mind-expanding experiences were envisioned from the start, and the BSO, as noted in its early press materials, hoped to boost “each student’s academic, social, and musical progress.” The social and musical improvements have certainly materialized.

“It’s exceeded my expectations, in every way,” says Lynette Fields. “I see the music in my kids, and I see them becoming better people.”

Rodney Brewington sees something similar with his son, Keyon, a violin-playing Mahler at Lockerman-Bundy. “OrchKids improved his whole attitude about life,” says Brewington. “I’m shocked how much he’s gotten out of this program.”

Overall, grades may have improved, but standardized test scores have yet to spike. Skinner says it’s a point of contention with administrative types, “who tell us that if kids can’t read and write, it doesn’t matter how good they play the cello.”

He acknowledges there’s some truth to that and notes that OrchKids is flexible enough to accommodate academic enhancement. After all, he and everyone else associated with the program understands they’re not in the business of producing symphony musicians. “We will celebrate that when it happens, but it certainly isn’t the desired outcome for every child,” says Skinner. “It’s more about them becoming whole and healthy individuals.”

Back in 2008, Alsop maintained that “the real measure of this program will be whether these children do better in life,” and she still feels that way. “People like Dan and I have experienced firsthand how music can be a haven, a refuge,” she says. “As kids, it set us apart and provided the tools to learn things that were applicable throughout our lives. We want to pass that on to these kids and give them all a chance to experience what we did.”

If resources allow—most funding comes from foundations, donors, and the government—Alsop hopes the program will someday be available to all city school children.

And at least one OrchKid is already planning how to keep it going. When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Ashanti says, “Mr. Dan.”

“I want to take over OrchKids,” she explains. “Someday, Mr. Dan’s going to get old and tired, and I don’t want OrchKids to end. I want all little kids to be OrchKids.”

Upcoming OrchKids Events:

October 27, 11 a.m.
Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center Y
900 33rd Street

October 28, 10:30 a.m.
Brown Memorial Woodbrook Church
6200 North Charles Street

December 14, 5 p.m.
Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School
301 N. Pulaski Street

Issue date: October, 2012
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