ARI SHAPIRO, Host:
Baltimore has plenty of blocks like this one - boarded-up row houses, broken windows, bullet-proof glass at the corner market. Across the street there's an unremarkable-looking elementary school, Harriet Tubman. Practically all the students here get free or reduced lunches. Some of the kids live in homeless shelters. But here's the thing. Harriet Tubman seems to have an invisible force field around it that makes the school somehow different from the rest of the neighborhood. Dan Trahey struggles every day to keep that force field intact. And he doesn't even work for the school. He works for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. He's standing next to the jungle gym that the BSO helped install a few months ago.
DAN TRAHEY: Imagine, we're looking at the ground right now. And imagine this is the playground. And this was like a crystal field full of broken bottles and glass. It was awful. You - we would be crunching under our shoes right now. And actually our director of finance, you know, being very good with numbers and very meticulous, she sat out here for like five hours on her hands and knees picking up all these little pieces of glass and using a sieve and getting the good dirt out.
SHAPIRO: So it's not an environment where you would imagine a lot of Mozart.
TRAHEY: No, not at all. But hopefully it'll ring through these streets very soon.
SHAPIRO: Dan Trahey runs a program called OrchKids. It's spelled O-R-C-H KIDS, like Orchestra Kids. It's a collaboration between the BSO and Harriet Tubman School. The idea is to introduce disadvantaged students to classical music and maybe change their lives in the process.
As we walk through the shiny red school doors, the neighborhood blight disappears.
TRAHEY: As you see, we painted the brick. And actually Marin did this.
SHAPIRO: Marin Alsop, the maestro of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, painted the brick walls in this elementary school.
TRAHEY: I can show you some pictures. It's pretty amazing. She's a better conductor than she is a painter. But...
SHAPIRO: I won't tell her you said that.
TRAHEY: ...she was great.
SHAPIRO: Walking through the halls, older students ask Dan Trahey if they can help with OrchKids. This is the first year of the project, and it's starting with the younger students. Each year it'll grow to eventually encompass the whole school. Every kid here seems to want to be involved in the program. In truth, that's basically the only thing there is to do after school.
TRAHEY: Everyone, OrchKids, you need to be lined up over here.
SHAPIRO: Upstairs, the OrchKids practice room is a warm, bright space. IKEA cabinets for walls, potted plants on top. Kids often drag their parents upstairs to show them there are actually live plants growing indoors.
TRAHEY: The kids need to be in the most positive environment they can be. And probably a lot of the other spaces they're in, none of these things have been thought about. I mean, the colors on the walls, what's on their walls, on what they're seeing, all that. So we wanted to make it the best we could for them.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You're a trained musician. You have an MFA. You've played in orchestras. So did you always know that you wanted to bring music to places where they might not have a lot of classical music exposure in their lives?
TRAHEY: Yeah. To be honest with you, I mean, I've felt like I was performing for the wrong audience. And I felt like the people that I was performing for, they didn't really need it. And I wanted to perform for people that I felt needed it.
SHAPIRO: Explain to me what you mean by that because I think people understand the need for food and the need for clothing. You say people need this music. What do you mean?
TRAHEY: Well, I think there's something - there's something that we feel inside of us that brings out emotions that we can't bring through talking or through reading that music brings out. There's something - something that triggers in the brain that helps us get to deeper rooted emotions. And I think that's something that these kids really need.
SHAPIRO: OrchKids is based on Venezuela's program El Sistema. That program's been going for more than 30 years, and it's all over the country. El Sistema's graduates include Gustavo Dudamel. He's about to become musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Venezuela's government pays for El Sistema. OrchKids is not government funded. So far, Harriet Tubman is the only place it exists. And it fits right in with the school principal's plan for her students.
Kimberly Sollars is fiery, proud, and practical. We met her in the principal's office, but she's almost never there. She spends all day in classes with her kids. She's been at the school less than a year. The last principal was forced out when the school failed No Child Left Behind standards. I asked Ms. Sollars how will the new paint job help kids who don't have food and clothes.
KIMBERLY SOLLARS: Well, our school has more than just a new paint job. I'm a believer that when they cross that threshold, they've come into a place that's all about them. And that paint job wasn't done by a bunch of strangers. It was done by the kids. It was done by the community. It was done by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra members. So it's more than a paint job. It's a paint job to an outsider, but it's love to us. And our kids know that.
SHAPIRO: Down the hall, Dan Trahey has gathered some of his first grade OrchKids in the cafeteria to show us what they've been learning.
TRAHEY: I want to start with our mouths. We're going to do some rhythms with our mouths. And them I'm going to actually have you do something on the table. But I don't want you - I want you to have your hands in rest position, OK? I want your bottoms and your feet to be pianissimo, right? As soft as possible, OK? Eyes on me, please. Arianche(ph), eyes on me. You ready? Let's start with this one. Bap-bap-barap-ba.
Unidentified Children: Bap-bap-barap-ba.
TRAHEY: Now, let's use some of our hands. Let's start various (unintelligible), OK? Can you repeat after me? Mississippi hot dog, I like peas, I like peas. Do it.
(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHMIC BANGING ON THE TABLE)
TRAHEY: Mississippi hot dog, I like peas, I like peas.
SHAPIRO: Was that Mississippi hot dog I like peas, I like peas?
SHAPIRO: No. I like cheese.
SHAPIRO: I like cheese. Oh, I misremembered the title of the song. So who can tell - you guys looked so focused when you guys were doing those rhythms. Who can tell me what's going through your head while you're doing that? Asia(ph), right?
ASIA: I was concentrating, and I was listening.
SHAPIRO: Do you - when you're in class during the day, do you think about that concentrating and that listening?
SHAPRIO: Yeah? Tell me more about that.
ASIA: I know 100 plus four...
SHAPIRO: Asia starts showing me her math skills. Another girl named Arianche says doing this music makes her feel sad.
ARIANCHE: So sad, I feel sad deep in my heart.
ARIANCHE: Because a lot of people would look at you playing the instrument.
SHAPIRO: So when you're up there playing an instrument, you imagine people watching you?
SHAPIRO: And being proud of you?
ARIANCHE: And then they clap for you. And they settle down for you. And they would not talk for you.
SHAPIRO: The idea of adults settling down, not talking, listening to these kids is a big deal.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHATTING)
SHAPIRO: The day we visited was a major event. The students were about to see their instruments for the first time. BSO maestro Marin Alsop has arrived. So has the truck.
Unidentified Child #2: Violin, violin...
TRAHEY: So grab one instrument, and then we'll head upstairs. Marin, do you want to actually give them one of the instruments to carry up? That'd be...
MARIN ALSOP: Yeah, sure.
TRAHEY: ...that might be nice.
ALSOP: Come on. Grab that. OK. What do you want? You want that one?
SHAPIRO: No, I want that one right there.
ALSOP: OK. That one. You go.
SHAPIRO: Kids are carrying boxes bigger than they are, literally an orchestra's worth of instruments. They haul their stash upstairs to the OrchKids room where they sit and listen to the woman they call Ms. Marin.
ALSOP: Yup. So, you know what I've brought? I wanted to show you my violin because this is a violin that I've had, oh, since I was just a little bit taller than you are. And so - isn't it beautiful?
ALSOP: Isn't that pretty? But you know what? Having an instrument is like having a pet. You have to take good care of it. It's not that I'm advocating that you all play the violin, but you really should.
SHAPIRO: Each kid gets to try an instrument. It's like opening Christmas gifts.
ALSOP: And I just wanted to tell you that - is that what you want to play?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN TALKING IN UNISON)
TRAHEY: Let's check it out. Look at this. It's brand new, too. So let's pull it out of its case.
Unidentified Child #4: That's mine.
TRAHEY: Now I need you to see that you go like this with your lips since you want to play this. Everybody watch my lips. I want you to see this. It's actually more like a bee than a horse. It's like a...
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN TRAHEY MAKING A BUZZING SOUND)
TRAHEY: Can anyone do that?
Unidentified Child #5: Yes.
TRAHEY: Let me see it.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN MAKING A BUZZING SOUND)
TRAHEY: Put your lips really tight together and go...
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN TRAHEY MAKING A BUZZING SOUND)
(SOUNDBITE OF TRUMPET)
TRAHEY: Your first sound, lovely.
ALSOP: First sound.
TRAHEY: Your parents are going to be thrilled.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
SHAPIRO: After each kid plays a few notes, they trickle out of the building. And Marin Alsop sits down looking happy.
In these last couple hours as the kids were getting their musical instruments, what was your internal monologue?
ALSOP: I was kind of jealous. Isn't that terrible? Because - and I'm from a family of professional musicians. But, you know, my parents were always, OK, here's the piano, play it, you're going to be a concert pianist, you know. OK, that didn't work, let's get to the violin. You know, I didn't have the opportunity to try a trumpet. I mean, can you imagine being able to try instruments until you feel that this is the one for you?
SHAPIRO: She has a lot riding on this program, and not only personally. Alsop contributed $100,000 from her MacArthur genius grant to help fund this project. And she's starting it when many other arts organizations are laying people off, or worse.
ALSOP: Economic hard times are going to come and go. 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 to be bold and to do something important. And maybe in some ways it enables us to remember that, you know, life is not about money.
SHAPIRO: Well, $100,000 is much better spent on this than in the stock market.
ALSOP: Well, clearly, this was the best hundred thousand dollars I've ever spent because the rest of it is only worth 50,000.
SHAPIRO: Alsop says she can't wait to see her orchestra of 90 kids from this neighborhood playing side by side with her musicians from the Baltimore Symphony. Maybe not next year, but in a decade, she says, definitely.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: You can see a video blog of the Harriet Tubman students at our blog, npr.org/soapbox. You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. Scott Simon's back next week.