A Free Musical Haven For Inner-City Talents A recession is no time to launch a new summer music camp. John Littlejohn, a classically trained musician in his early 30s, jumped through many hoops to make his summer camp a reality. Dubbed Thrive City String Academy, the camp took place on the campus of Towson University in Maryland, and the campers were all handpicked by public-school music teachers.
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A Free Musical Haven For Inner-City Talents

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A Free Musical Haven For Inner-City Talents

A Free Musical Haven For Inner-City Talents

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Finally this hour, we're going to hear about a new summer music camp that almost didn't happen. Thrive City String Academy was launched by a charismatic musician in his 30s.

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, he found out a recession is a tough time to do good for inner-city kids.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The sheer audacity of it is impressive, but John Littlejohn is a pretty impressive guy. There were many hoops he had to jump through to make this summer camp a reality, but funding, he says, was the hardest.

Mr. JOHN LITTLEJOHN (Founder, Thrive City String Academy): That's been the one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

There were so many reasons why people were telling us we couldn't do it, most of being you're a new program in a recession. Arts organizations are already in trouble. And it was discouraging, definitely, but I didn't hear one reason -that was why we shouldn't have this camp, which is that the kids don't need it. They need it and for them, life has always been a recession.

BLAIR: John Littlejohn — that is his real name — didn't raise as much money as he would have liked, so he shortened the camp and invited fewer kids. He named it Thrive City String Academy.

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: One, two, ready, play.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Towson University in Baltimore charged a reduced rate for the dorm rooms where the kids slept, meals at the school cafeteria and classroom space. The campers were all handpicked by public school music teachers. Littlejohn wanted kids who had a strong interest in music but who didn't have money for lessons.

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: This is a kid who is in a class of 30 violinists, who loves music and is in the back, lost in the shuffle, and this kid is just needing to be pulled out and just get some private attention because they love it and they just can't get the resources they need.

Mr. SHAWNTRAZE DORSEY: My name is Shawntraze Dorsey. I am 10 years old, and I play violin.

BLAIR: Shawntraze Dorsey has gone to other overnight camps with his church, but he was eager to tell me that this one has an all-you-can-eat buffet in the university cafeteria. Dorsey also likes that he's learning new ways to play violin, like tremolo.

Mr. DORSEY: It's like, when you shake, like you keep on - you just go, like, one inch up and down on the strings, and it makes some squeaky noise.

BLAIR: Dorsey and the other campers also learned to play Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."

(Soundbite of violin)

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of violin)

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of violin)

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: There we go, just open D.

(Soundbite of violin)

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: (Unintelligible).

BLAIR: John Littlejohn has been teaching for about 10 years. He grew up in Michigan, was raised mostly by his mom. In the '80s, she was laid off from her job as a secretary for GM, so they moved from a middle-class neighborhood to a poor one. By the time Littlejohn was in the sixth grade, things had gotten better, and they moved back to a middle-class neighborhood.

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: I went from a school where there was one white kid in the class to a school where I was the only black person in the class. And I was like, I couldn't even - it was like my whole world was just flipped upside down.

BLAIR: He felt different in other ways, too.

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: I was kind of a wild child, and I had a big J in the back of my head, you know, cut in there. I was kind of ghetto, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Kind of ghetto, playing violin in the school orchestra.

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: So they always knew me as that kid struggling in the back. But quietly, I just - I'm creeping up the section and they're, you know, like, wait, this kid is kind of, he's passing me. What happened?

BLAIR: What happened, says Littlejohn, is that great teachers offered to help him, first in high school, then at the University of Michigan, and then at the Peabody Conservatory. Littlejohn became close friends with fellow students Alex and Anthony Cheung.

(Soundbite of music)

Today, the three of them play in a string trio called Infinitus, and education is a big part of what they do. At their concerts, they play classical, hip hop, Latin, jazz, and their own compositions.

(Soundbite of music)

John Littlejohn recruited the Cheungs and other musician friends to be counselors at Thrive City String Academy.

Mr. LITTLEJOHN: The best moment for me - one of the best moments of this camp so far was the first day, you know, the kids were exhausted. They had played all day. Most of them had never played this long in their entire lives, and we have, you know, free time. And before lights out at 10 o'clock, from 9 to 10, they can kind of just hang out in the hall.

I expected them to just run around and play. They started pulling out their instruments and started playing, and I almost cried. I mean, the whole faculty were just flabbergasted. They just wanted a place to play music, and they're just so happy to be playing. I turned to the faculty and said, we got the right kids. These are the kids we were looking for.

BLAIR: John Littlejohn has already started fundraising for next summer, and he says it's not much easier.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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