Pizzicato? Easy. Adagio scales? No problem.
Kailah Carney rocks her bow across the cello with steady, lip-biting concentration and, then looking to her teacher for the nod of approval, smiles at the results—a tiny girl creating a grown-up, magisterial sound.
Kailah, a 9-year-old from Southwest Atlanta, had never encountered such an orotund instrument until a few weeks ago. During the orientation for the Atlanta Music Project, she gravitated to the cello and since has been reluctant put it down.
“When I picked it up, it just fit me,” she says. “I thought it made the coolest sound.”
Her instructor, Dr. Jackie Pickett, an Ivy League-trained bassist, initially used wooden chopsticks to teach her how to hold a bow. “It’s a matter of consistency and repetition,” Pickett says. “We’re only a few weeks into this program, and these kids are already starting to soar. Just think where we’ll be when they really get a taste for public performing.”
Hip-hop occasionally blares from a passing car, but inside the Gilbert House, a Victorian manor on the edge of East Point, the chord progressions are more likely to sample from Bach and Beethoven in this intensive, after-school youth orchestra and choir. Five days a week, several dozen children in the first- to eighth-grade range gather for a homework period, followed by instruction on classical strings and woodwinds along with musicianship and theory, concluding in a rousing choral practice, with each small mouth forming a perfect “O.”
“We target at-risk, low-income kids in underserved communities, so you won’t find us in Buckhead, even though Buckhead people are welcome to come here,” says Dantes Rameau, director of the Atlanta Music Project. “If you can get here, you can attend classes. We don’t turn any kid down—especially the kids who need this the most.”
‘Global chain of helping hands’
The nonprofit pilot program, which opened its doors in October, employs eight teachers who instruct in cello, viola, violin, flute, trumpet, trombone, clarinet and chorus, with plans to add oboe, bassoon, French horn, tuba and percussion. “The idea is to build an entire orchestra from the ground up,” Rameau says.
During a break, several kids cluster into a rambunctious group hug around choir director Aisha Bowden, who says over the tops of their heads, “We’re starting to jell into a family, too,” before organizing them, with military precision, into a single-file line.
The AMP resulted from a global chain of helping hands stretching all the way to Caracas. In 1975, conductor and economist Jose Antonio Abreu developed “El Sistema,” a teaching methodology and the umbrella name for the National System of Youth and Children’s Orchestras in Venezuela. More than 70 percent of its 400,000 players live below the poverty line.
“The huge spiritual world that music produces in itself ends up overcoming material poverty,” Abreu says. “From the minute a child’s taught how to play an instrument, he’s no longer poor. He’s a child in progress.”
The program proved so successful, incubating some of the world’s leading classical musicians—the director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the youngest member of the Berlin Philharmonic are El Sistema alumni—that fellowships were established in Abreu’s name to expand his mission to the United States, where about a dozen programs are in the works.
“It’s social change through music,” says Rameau. “We’re investing in the future by keeping kids off the streets and out of the juvenile courts. The discipline they learn in an orchestra seeps into their social and academic lives. For example, you won’t sound as good if you slouch, you have to work together and harmonize as a team before you can step up as a soloist—those basic lessons have enduring, long-term applications.”
A Yale-trained bassoonist from Canada, Rameau studied El Sistema in Venezuela as an Abreu Fellow and recently relocated to Atlanta as part of Mayor Kasim Reed’s urban revitalization efforts.
“The city of Atlanta decided to support the Atlanta Music Project because so much research has shown that exposure to the arts empowers youth and has a positive impact on their academic achievement,” says Camille Russell Love, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs, which backs the AMP as part of its enrichment network known as “The Culture Club,” based in refurbished recreation centers and other venues across the city.
A classical education
Seed grants from AOL and The Coca-Cola Foundation helped with supplies and salaries for top-drawer instructors, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra gave Rameau an office at the Woodruff Arts Center, so he no longer “has to work out of a wi-fi coffee shop,” he says, marveling at the combination of public and private support the program has enjoyed.
The ASO knows firsthand the benefits of El Sistema—its bass clarinetist, Alcides Rodriguez, joined the program in Venezuela when he was nine.
“When El Sistema first started, a lot of people didn’t believe in it,” Rodriguez says. “It seemed crazy and impractical to them—an orchestra for that socioeconomic group, the poorest part of the city. But it gave kids opportunities and kept them—kept me—motivated in school. It has shown that it works, and I believe it will work in Atlanta.”
Rodriguez serves on the AMP’s board of directors, along with the Grammys’ official blogger, Arjan Timmermans, who signed on because, he says, “Music has the power to transform lives.”
Echoes Rameau: “It saved me. I started out as a cocky jock who probably would have ended up in trouble. But music taught me empathy and curiosity. It opened up the world to me because it taught me to dream.”
Eventually the director envisions the project transforming other communities across Georgia.
“Can you imagine if we get a group going in a Latin-American neighborhood here and an Appalachian community there, and then bring all of these kids together from different backgrounds to play music?” Rameau says. “We’re talking about healing racial divisions, about lifting kids out of poverty, about changing lives in ways that benefit everyone. The opportunities are endless.”