Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Week With The Baltimore Symphony OrchKids Program: DAYS 1 and 2

This week is our first residency of the Abreu Fellows program. To go along with the stuff we learn everyday in class, these residencies are a chance for us to see El Sistema-inspired programs up close. Come check out life inside the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra OrchKids program.

OrchKids is the Baltimore's Symphony's program but it takes place at Lockerman-Bundy Elementary school in West Baltimore, about ten minutes by car from the Josesph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall where the Baltimore Symphony performs. The program is open to any child who goes to Lockerman-Bundy Elementary from pre-K to 2nd grade. They plan to add a grade to the program each year. There is no audition process, rather just a comittment from the child to show up. The program is free of charge for all the kids. It runs Monday to Thursday for 3 hours a day after school and on Saturdays field trips are organized.

Curriculum includes musicianship classes, group lessons, ensembles and "bucket band". The instruments offered are violin, cello, bass, clarinet, flute, trumpet, french horn, trombone, euphonium and percussion. As the program expands and the kids improve they will add more instruments in order to have enough to form a complete symphony orchestra, wind ensemble and string ensemble.

Our residency consists of teaching, observing and documentation. The week will culminate in a performance this Friday. To my horror, I've been asked to play saxophone (after a 10 year hiatus) in this concert.

Pictures and videos can explain much better than I can, so here's a more visual look at what's been going on after our first two days at OrchKids.

The school where OrchKids takes place:

Across the street from the school:

Unfortunately this is a familiar site in West Baltimore. About half the houses on any given street are boarded up. On Tuesday as we pulled up to the school for the first time a drug deal went down at the end of the block. For many of the kids in the program, this is their neighbourhood, but they cannot play outside after school because it's too dangerous. OrchKids gives them a safe place to hang out after school. And on top of that, they are there learning how to play music.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet some of the OrchKids:

Their comfort interacting with each other and adults is something that the teachers work on everyday. Being respectful, confident and social is impressed upon these kids daily. At the end of the video you'll see Nick, the site coordinator making sure things stay calm and orderly. I have to say this all pays off. Every one of these kids are thrilled to come up to you all smiles, introduce themselves, shake your hand and look at you in the eyes as they do it all.

The kids in their bucket band class:

This sort of class is essential since hitting a bucket with drumsticks is easily done and produces a sound right away. Because of this the kids can start playing as a group very quickly while honing their rhythmic skills, memory skills and musicianship. Ensemble playing starts as soon as possible in El Sistema as they want the kids to have that community feel as soon as they start the program.

Here's an interview I did with Mr. Roosevelt Grandy whose son is in OrchKids. You can see how much the program means to him. In fact, Mr. Grandy, who is a professional drummer will join us on Friday to play our concert alongside his son. Thank you to you Mr. Grandy for speaking with me.

Fun is a big part of OrchKids but music demands a lot of focus, discipline and concentration so recess is sometimes part of the daily activities . They are pre-k to second grade, after all. In this video below they've been given a few minutes to run around in the playground and now Dan, the OrchKids director is preparing them to return to rehearsal. Notice how he instills in them a sense of respect for their instrument and a sense that what they're doing at OrchKids is something really special. As I've mentioned in previous blogs, making kids feel like they are special is at the core of El Sistema.

In rehearsal for our concert this Friday:

The instruments are provided for free, but the kids can't take them home just yet.

Also in rehearsal:
You'll notice that the fellows are sitting in the sections with the kids just as if we were in the program too. This peer-to-peer mentorship is also a strong component of El Sistema. The more advanced students help the less advanced ones which teaches them responsability and teamwork. And the younger ones look up to the older kids as examples of what they can become, in this way the younger kids have role models in front of them everyday not just on television or in magazines.

Between the end of the regular school day and the start of OrchKids the kids have a snack in the school cafeteria. Lockerman-Bundy is a Title 1 School which means they have enough students whose families qualify as low-income to receive government funds. These funds often go towards breakfast, lunch and snacks. Here they are hanging out with me and Jonathan, the other Canadian in the Abreu Fellows Program:

Our stay in Baltimore continues for the next two days. We will be meeting with Marin Alsop, the conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. She is a big part of OrchKids and in fact donated 100,000$ of her own money to the program. We will also attend the BSO concert on Thursday night. The week will end with a marching band/percussion concert on Friday with the Fellows, Orchkids kids and teachers. I continue to look foward to working with these students who show nothing but the greatest potential.

As always if you have other questions or comments about our time in Baltimore please feel free to express yourself in the comment section at the bottom of this blog.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next blog which should be out by this weekend.


  1. Great post Dantes!! I really enjoyed it and I think this programs is amazing!! I wihs we could offer one in Haiti. I think you need to improve your interview skils ;)!!! Good luck with the sax!

  2. Having free use of the instruments really is a great way to get more kids into the program. I would've done orchestra if that'd been the case when I was younger. I wish that more schools had programs like OrchKids for young children, and that they all had big-hearted people like you involved!

    Keep on having fun with your teaching & blog postings Dantes-- Sax ain't got nothing on the bassooooon.. :P

  3. Hey Soraya, thanks for reading. My roommate Stan ( started a music program in Kenya this past summer. It's not inconceivable to start other ones in other African or Carribean countries. And you're right about my interview skills. Hopefully the more I do the better I'll get. I'm gonna change the title of that conversation with Mr. Grandy from "interview" to "chat", because really, that's more what it was.

  4. hey Linda,

    You're right that free instruments are a good way to attract new kids. The truth of the matter is that studying music is very costly. You have to pay a teacher, by the books, buy the instrument and get to and from the lessons. Obviously for some people, this is very difficult.

    For example, when I was volunteering at the Leading Note Foundation in Ottawa last September, we were often dealing with families of immigrants with several children and a single parent who was working by day and going to school by night. Music lessons and its logistics were, justifiably, not the priority in the minnds of these parents...UNLESS they had access to a program everyday after school that takes care of all those issues (lessons, instruments etc).

    I'd like to point out that any child can attend the Leading Note Foundation. They have a sliding scale tuition where the more money a child's parents make the more tuition the child pays (there is a cap for tuition, of course). So it's a great way for kids to meet other kids from different backgrounds, while using music as a common denominator.