Atlanta’s ultimate relief effort to teach classical music and to keep kids off the streets.
In a word or two, I love music.
I often think back to when I was a 5th grader. I attended an inner city school in my neighborhood in Spartanburg, SC and had just gotten the opportunity to participate in the orchestra program: picking up the viola and immediately falling in love with it. I practiced as much as I could – literally driving my mother crazy until the wee hours of the morning. Within a year, I was the only male participant at my school, but I advanced to honors’ orchestra. That’s when I knew that I’d reached another chapter in my musical integrity.
Seventeen years later – a Tues., May 3, 2011 evening on the 27th floor of the W Midtown (overlooking the entire city of Atlanta, mind you) – I’m sitting in the rear drinking a slew of tropical flavored Fuze Beverages and experiencing the Atlanta Music Project’s (AMP) spring concert, or AMP at Altitude. For some reason, Midtown Atlanta and Piedmont Park couldn’t have looked more fabulous even with the gloomy skies out. Composed of roughly 20 children, the chorus – courtesy of director and iconic Washington, DC-area education veteran Aisha Bowden – performed the folk classic “The Water is Wide” and the classic “Route 66” as Bowden played the piano. These kids tapped their feet, snapped their fingers and were accompanied by a double bass in the back. The performance was too adorable! The youth symphony orchestra, about 20+ musicians, rotated conductors, or “teaching artists,” and opened with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” The youngsters attacked their instruments with killer vibratos, impressive crescendos and bow arms (and lifts). I don’t like to brag, but my junior high school instructor used to tell my peers and his colleagues that I had the bow arm of a javelin thrower. What took me a year to master during my studies (and constant peering in those colorful All For Strings books and Suzuki Method books) took these kids two months. I was impressed.
With the motto “Music for Social Change,” AMP, co-founded with board chair Al Meyers, comes courtesy of executive director Dantes Rameau — an Ottawa, Canada-born bassoonist and alumnus of the Yale School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music [who thought I was cool when I told him I played viola during my childhood]. The night also calls for a celebration…as AMP is awarded a proclamation from District 2 City Councilman Kwanzaa Hall. It’s evident that a change has come – not just from President Obama.
AMP is based upon “El Sistema,” a Venezuelan-based youth symphony and choral program that advocates for musical excellence, confidence development, arts education, creativity, ambition and social mobility. “I don’t know what’s going on with their families,” Bowden says. “I don’t know what happened in school that day. I don’t know what happened on the bus, but I do know for this 50 minutes, we’re gonna be united. To be a part of a program that is a music education program as a means of social justice, it gets no better than that.”
Rameau agrees that if music should make a difference, it should be positive, uplifting, hard and different. “These kids are so talented, and they can do whatever they want. The issue is growing up in circumstances that don’t allow them to believe they can do it. Growing up in circumstances where they don’t know how many years it takes to finish high school. What I’m seeing is all the talent that these kids have, they may not be around an environment or people giving them tools so they can see they can do whatever they want. So we’re trying to teach them to be ambitious. Music is a fundamental part of someone’s education, and there’s no doubt that any kid can do it. We’re trying to help them to believe that they can do whatever it is they want.”
“El Sistema” has enriched the lives of over a million underprivileged children – building 150 orchestras with 300K students annually. “Music is not recognized as a vehicle for the positive transformation of someone’s life,” Rameau says. “It’s fun, it’s entertaining and it makes you feel good, but it’s part of a well-rounded education. Music is a necessity; it’s a part of being human. It gives us access to emotions and sensibilities. Music is a natural human tendency.”
In the U.S. alone, Rameau says there are upwards of 30 inspired programs. A recipient of the Abreu Fellows Program and eventually AOL’s 25 for 25 grant recipient as well another from the Sparkplug Foundation, Rameau traveled to Venezuela for two months, studied under “El Sistema’s” brainchild Dr. Jose Antonio Abreu and visited 30 musical centers (nucleos). Rameau says the sabbatical was the “most intense work he’d ever done.”
“Being a musician only in the world of classical music in general is a tendency that’s coming to an end,” Rameau believes. “The very very very best musicians are gonna be all kids. What are we gonna do as musicians to make ourselves relevant? We have to pass it on to the next generation. Being a musician is no longer enough. We have a duty to the next generation to pass it on.”
Upon Rameau’s return to Atlanta in Feb. 2010, he hit the ground with tenacity to ensure a new type of humanitarian effort – something he says is developing the true side of our children. Mayor Kasim Reed’s campaign pushed to revamp the importance of recreational centers and activities as safe haven for young people. From there, the Office of Cultural Affairs supplied Rameau and AMP with a facility in Southwest Atlanta at the Gilbert House. After a meeting with Dr. Stanley Romanstein, the president of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Rameau was given office space for AMP. Coca-Cola also came on board as AMP’s biggest supporter. AMP officially launched on Oct. 4, 2010: giving all participants a place to get classical training five days a week after school.
AMP is the first of its kind for the state of Georgia. Rameau says he wants to expand into other parts of metropolitan Atlanta and the entire state: pointing out his concerns for statistics for black male imprisonment, high school dropout rates and a lack of those pursuing higher education. “It’s a pilot program. This year has to show and prove. As kids grow, they stay with us through high school, and we can show that this program is worth investing in. Either we invest in kids now with these kinds of programs or we wait and pay for time in the juvenile justice system. We have a way right now for them to go through high school and something more productive.”
The “teaching artists” are very pivotal to youth success. Musicians themselves, the instructors and mentors hold their ability to inspire the students to learn and take charge of their musicianship key. The “teaching artists” believe music helps to formulate a strong work ethic at an early age – thus, the youth all take the initiative to sign up to be a part of the program and to take musicianship to the next level. Would you believe that the youngest participant is five years old? Bowden, the latest Aberu Fellow who dedicates two days a week to AMP, plans to pick up where Rameau left off – or possibly take over the city of Atlanta as she insists.
“My commitment first and foremost is to make sure that the children succeed, so that’s the key to our success,” Bowden says. “At school, you’re number one objective isn’t to be an excellent music program; it is to give the students some sort of idea of what music is about. You can be an excellent pianist, but if you don’t know how to make them excellent in what they do, it serves no purpose. I think we have made a serious difference in the lives of these children, but I think these children have made a difference in the lives of other individuals. If it’s just to make them happy or to unleash certain emotions…if it’s to get note reading because we do everything. Music invokes so much, it makes them feel like a family. It’s gonna be beautiful, and you’re gonna be happy. It’s just a blessing to be involved.”
Rameau adds to that: “The deal with teaching artists is no longer just a thing you do as a hobby or a thing you do on the side. A musician is performing and teaching the next generation.”
Read original article Found on the Urban Lux Magazine website.
By: Christopher Daniel