Taking life lessons in a rehearsal hall

After school, city students dive into classical music

December 03, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,SUN REPORTER

Some of the instruments were squeaking. One girl didn't want to take off her hood because she had a "hair problem." Another girl, briefly, was missing her music, one of the cello players was moody and several students straggled in late.

The music teacher, Anna Harris, was not the least bit unnerved by any of it. She looked out brightly at the elementary school students balancing their basses, cellos, violas and violins.

"Can I see your beautiful, beautiful orchestra positions?" she asked. And then: "One-two-ready-go!"

The room groaned with the first few notes of "Jingle Bells" - slow, a little unkempt, a little somber.

"Wait, wait, wait," Harris said, and the song crackled to a halt.

"Do you remember what we talked about in class this week? That you have to really focus, focus, focus!"

She raised her hands and they tried again.

The students - primarily second- through fifth-graders - who attended the Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra Bridges Program rehearsal yesterday at Lovely Lane United Methodist Church in Baltimore don't have their own violins and cellos. Many can't afford private lessons. Their schools don't offer instruction in string instruments.

But since the program launched last fall, students at three Baltimore public schools have had the opportunity to attend free after-school music classes twice a week at their schools as well as the Sunday afternoon rehearsals at the church. They have learned some of the finer points of bowing and fingering. They know how to cradle their cellos like babies. They know about concert behavior. They know about classical music.

Antonio Jacobs, 10, who wants to be a musician when he grows up - or a policeman if that fails - said the program "keeps you out of bad things after school.

"If you're going to play a string instrument, you have to have a positive attitude in order to play better," he added.

"All I can say is it's fun," Niajea Randolph, 9, said thoughtfully. She began learning the viola last year, and when she plays her instrument, she said, "I feel strong."

Sallah Jenkins, whose 9-year-old son is a second-year violin player, volunteers at the Sunday rehearsals and was handing out Cheetos, Fritos, raisins and juice during the snack break yesterday.

"It's the most awesome thing I've seen in the city. I'm talking inner city. It's mostly African-American kids - to see them come together and be afforded the opportunity to play string instruments for free. ... I'm really grateful as a parent," she said. "This is going to last them for their lives."

The program is the brainchild of Frances Belcher, the youth orchestra's former director, who was inspired after watching a news segment a decade ago about a government-funded youth orchestra in Venezuela. The idea of promoting social change through music appealed to her and, after years of research, she set about creating the program in 2004.

Bridges now has an annual budget of $100,000, which comes from foundations, individual donors and some government grants. Belcher recruited serious musicians to teach and expects that those students who excel will eventually join the 30-year- old Greater Baltimore Youth Orchestra. This year, 108 children from Calvin Rodwell, Govans and Waverly elementary schools enrolled in the Bridges program.

`There's something about these little ones," said Rebecca Laird, 29, a Peabody graduate who teaches about 20 kids, runs the Sunday rehearsals and has to blink away tears when she talks about her students. "The only way I can explain it is just to watch their faces."

Some of the children are so enthusiastic, they stay for several 45-minute classes in a row. One boy, a bass player, attends violin, viola and cello classes. A little girl is so earnest about the music, she sometimes cries if she misses one note. Some practice every day and regularly tune in to classical music on the radio.

"They don't have their instruments year-round, or the time others have, but they're doing remarkably well," Laird said.

Unlike private-school students - who often are forced to go to music classes - the Bridges children all want to be there, and the difference is palpable, she said. If there are disruptions, it's only because they don't want to stop playing. "There's a lot of excitement and joy and rarely a bored-looking face," she said.

On this rainy Sunday, the second-year students played upstairs and the first-year students practiced downstairs and then, after snacks, the 40 kids in attendance joined together for a run-through of the concert. "Some of this is last-minute, cross-your-fingers - but they always come through for us," Laird had said at the beginning of the rehearsal.

And indeed: Belcher played the piano, Laird conducted, Harris shook a bell and a distinctive sounding "Jingle Bells" - faster this time, and a little livelier - washed through the hall.

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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