Baltimore Symphony Trains Disadvantaged Kids

A student at Baltimore's Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

hide captionModeled after a successful program in Venezuela, the Baltimore Symphony's Orchkids project aims to build an orchestra and enrich young lives.

Kirsten Beckerman
Dan Trahey, director of the Baltimore Symphony's Orchkids program, helps a student

hide captionDan Trahey, director of the Baltimore Symphony's Orchkids program, helps a student at Baltimore's Harriet Tubman Elementary School.

Kirsten Beckerman

On a block with boarded-up row houses and broken windows sits Baltimore's Harriet Tubman Elementary School. Practically all of the students at the school get free or reduced-price lunches. Some of the kids live in homeless shelters.

But a remarkable new music program lives inside the school's unremarkable walls. OrchKids is a collaboration between the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the school. The idea is to introduce disadvantaged students to classical music, and maybe change their lives in the process.

The Baltimore Symphony's Dan Trahey runs the OrchKids program. This is the first year of the project, which has started with the younger students — mostly first-graders. Each year, it'll grow to eventually encompass the whole school.

Trahey has an advanced music degree and is a trained orchestra musician. Before taking over OrchKids, he says he felt like he was performing for the wrong audience — symphony subscribers who really didn't need the music.

"There's something we feel inside of us that brings out emotions that we can't bring out through talking or through reading, but that music brings out," Trahey says. "There's something that triggers the brain that helps us get to deeper-rooted emotions, and I think that's something these kids really need."

OrchKids is based on a successful program in Venezuela called El Sistema. That program has been running for more than 30 years, country-wide. Its most visible graduate is the dynamic young conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the musical director designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Unlike El Sistema, the OrchKids project is not funded by the government. Baltimore Symphony music director Marin Alsop, who contributed $100,000 from her MacArthur "genius grant," says she's not worried about launching a new multi-year program at a time when many other arts organizations are laying people off.

"Economic hard times are going to come and go," Alsop says. "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. And maybe, in some ways, it enables us to remember that life is not about money. Clearly, this was the best $100,000 I've ever spent."

Alsop says that she can't wait to one day see her orchestra of 90 kids from the Tubman School playing side-by-side with her musicians from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

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