Atlanta Music Project: A new “System” to teach music

“The System” has been called a miracle and a fairy tale. Atlanta is beginning to learn how true that might be.

Each weekday, two dozen children in first through  seventh grades are picked up from school and driven to the historic Gilbert House in Southwest Atlanta. After a light snack, City of Atlanta teachers tutor them in their homework. Only when they have finished can they race to the main activity of the afternoon: music lessons.

In the largest room in the 1865 house, with high ceilings and lemony walls, eight violin cases are lined up on the hardwood floor, yawning open and empty.

The eight young violinists, all beginners, clutch the instruments and sit in a semi-circle around Elizabeth Oladele, a recent University of Georgia music-education graduate. They’re deciphering little black dots in their workbooks.

“Who can tell me the notes in the first measure?” Oladele asks. “Tobias?”

A small boy in a colorful shirt, one of the youngest here, stares hard at the page. Then he blurts out an answer, triumphantly: “D, D, D, rest!”

“Very good; let’s try not to yell,” Oladele commends in steady, teacherly tones. “All together, feet flat on the floor, put your finger on the D string. One, two, ready, play …”

A glorious cacophony pours forth. But on the second try, most of the notes are an actual D. Barely seven weeks after first picking up a violin, these youngsters are  getting the hang of it.

And they’re getting excited.

Five days a week, from 3 p.m. till 6:30 p.m., the Atlanta Music Project (AMP) is remaking the lives of 24 children from among the poorest neighborhoods in metro Atlanta. More may join them; there’s currently funding for up to 40 students, and ambition to grow much further.

There’s a fixed regimen: snack and schoolwork followed by two solid hours of music lessons in small groups. From the start they learn the fundamentals of rhythm with African drumming, sing in a choir, and gather regularly to play music as an orchestra, including public performances. The next concert is scheduled for January.

The overall goal, says project director Dantes Rameau, is using music — specifically orchestral classical music — as a tool for social change. “It starts as, well, discount after-school child care and gets kids off the streets and away from video games and a lifestyle that leads to trouble.”

The side effects, he continues, “change the kids’ lives.” Like rigorous after-school sports, playing in an orchestra teaches teamwork, leadership and builds self-esteem. But unlike sports, studies show that playing music in youth orchestras actually improves students’ aptitudes in academic subjects, including reading, math and science.

The project is funded largely by corporate and individual donations, with help from the City of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs. The first year’s goal is $100,000, says Rameau. He has raised half that amount so far, including a $30,000 grant from Coca-Cola.

Parents, too, are expected to pay for their kids’ enrollment, although on a sliding scale. The maximum fee is $65 a week; most can afford just $5.

“This isn’t a welfare program — they pay something and they can hold us accountable,” says Rameau, who grew up in Canada and attended McGill and Yale universities as a bassoonist.

The project, which began in October, takes inspiration from Venezuela’s national music-education program known as El Sistema ( The System), which started there in 1975 with 11 students in a garage.

It is now racing around the globe. In its home country, the results have been staggering. Almost half a million kids participate in El Sistema, with 70 percent from below the poverty line.  In turn, whole urban communities have become centered around these youth orchestras, and levels of civic engagement in Venezuela have skyrocketed.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra bass clarinetist Alcides Rodriguez, a Venezuela native, grew up with El Sistema. He’s now on the Atlanta Music Project board. The system’s message is carried internationally by the charismatic Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, which plays esteemed venues such as Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms in London.

But Rameau again insists that training magnificent musicians is a side effect, not the primary goal. He returns to the larger social implications.

“If we can get an at-risk kid in first grade, from a neighborhood with high dropout and teen pregnancy rates, and hang onto him through high school, we’ll have 100 percent graduation rates and a person ready to join society meaningfully,” Rameau said.

In 2008, a “60 Minutes” feature on El Sistema introduced the concept to a broader U.S. audience. Yet while the system’s methods have been exported to countries from Germany to Australia, it’s been slow to take hold in the United States.

“People told me it couldn’t work in capitalist America,” says ASO director of educational programming Melanie Darby, who helped coordinate Rameau’s launch of the project.

Despite proven results, “in Venezuela it’s almost totally a government program. But with sponsorships it will work here, too.”

Thought it has many substantial links to the Atlanta Music Project, the ASO is not an official sponsor.  Rameau does get free office space and supplies from the ASO.

For some in the music community, the Atlanta Music Project might seem to cover the same ground as the ASO’s Talent Development Program. That program identifies and nurtures musically gifted African-American and Latino youths and seeks, as the ASO’s Darby puts it, “to change the face of American orchestras.” It’s a narrower mission than the system’s whole-society approach.

“In North America we sometimes have the mindset that we go through the system, take what we can get and don’t see the need to nurture the next generation behind us,” says Rameau. “I want to be in a world where music can change attitudes, where art and policy are linked and everyone benefits.”

Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of www.ArtsCriticATL.com

Atlanta Music Project

There are many opportunities available for getting involved with the Atlanta Music Project:

  • Volunteer:  The AMP needs talented high-school and college-aged youth orchestra musicians to be music mentors.
  • Instruments: The project needs orchestral instruments in good working condition: violins, violas, cellos, basses, flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, french horns, tubas, orchestral percussion. Instrument donations are tax-deductible.
  • Donations: Tax-deductible monetary donations can be made with a credit card online at  www.atlantamusicproject.org, or by mailing a check (made out to “Atlanta Music Project”) to: Atlanta Music Project, 1280 Peachtree Street NE Suite 4074, Atlanta, GA 30309.

POST CREDIT:
Read original article found on the Access Atlanta website.
By: Pierre Ruhe

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