Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Children from The Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A trip to Outer Space: our week in West Baltimore

Our concert with the "ORCHKids"

See a slide show of our week in Baltimore:

This was the week we were waiting for: getting out and doing it ourselves! We just spent one week at the Baltimore OrchKids program, working with about 100 children and their teachers for 5 afternoons to create a concert with them.

I am in shock at what we saw there.

Our thoughts were traditional in the planning stage: what to teach them to play, what they would sing, how to teach our content, how to control the crowds. Advice was given, scripts were written, ideas debated, we prepared for our kids!

The arrival in Baltimore was normal: a sweet hotel (complete with a vast population of indoor little furry roommates, and to think: we had been worried about bedbugs!) close to the fabulous buildings that comprise the incredibly beautiful Peabody Institute, which bears all the signs of Baltimore's past grandeur . A testament to our familiar world of classical music, generously funded by those who love what we do. All is as expected.

We board the van to the school and are driven to
the ORCH Kids neighborhood, a mere 2 miles west of Peabody:

Imagine the kind of neighborhood you are told not to drive in. Conspicuous lack of traffic, commerce, even absence of busses and gas stations. Lonely people idle at street corners with an absence of purpose or direction. I had seen this, I do come from Cleveland, and have played for groups there....always great kids, we hope they like what we do, then we pack up and leave.

What I was not prepared for is this: by working so closely with our small groups of kids (we had 20 string players) for 5 days, we had a taste of how it would feel to be embedded in this community, to get to know the children and families closely, working with them through their hard times, seeing them grow up under these poor conditions. What glimpse 5 days afforded me, made me sick with fury that we can have our children growing up like this.

Meet Ashanti:

Ashanti is 8 years old, plays the violin with great care and is very very eager to learn new things. Around 6 pm every night, after her incredibly long school day, she and I went to a back corner and figured out notes on her little violin. She wanted so badly to learn the harder version of the song we played! She has a great violin set-up and, despite a disconcerting ear infection, wonderful hearing and sings beautifully in tune.

I spent 2 hours per day with Ashanti and her 5 violin-playing friends, and in this week I got to know them a little bit. Ashanti is featured here not because she is my favorite, but because she has, like many, has a real fire to learn and a strong desire to get better and be praised for that. OrchKids might just be her answer as it can give her a framework in which to express this side of herself, if she has the kind of teaching that will keep her fire ignited.

I hope she keeps finding those that are willing to light her up. She loves being challenged and praised!

We also had a young girl who, on the first day told the whole group her early memory of dad being arrested and taken away. What to say? She was very affectionate to me on that day and, to an almost worrisome extent, the next day. The 3rd day she did not come to lessons but did come to the free dinner, and on the last day she did not play the concert but did come to the group photo we all took afterwards. Huh.
Her explanations were fuzzy, my week too short for me to make complete sense of this.
Perhaps she shied away from violin class because on the second day during our class another violinist attacked her physically and was suspended for the week?? This was my first time seeing a child being truly violent and I was afraid.

Do you see what I mean by outer space?
a world outside of anything most of us expect life to be.

The neighborhood has no grocery store, no fast food, no doctors, no dentists, no post office, and no transportation out. I did not see a bus and there is no train or subway there. I saw no newspaper stands, no gas stations, not even fast food. We brought our lunches every day as there is only pizza delivery available to the school. The school food is absolutely terrible, a bag of sun chips and chocolate milk were called "supper".

Most families have no cars, certainly no computers or cell phones, information travels by word of mouth. School is a pretty safe place to bring kids and also offers free food and also a free after-school music program that serves free food. Yesterday morning, the power was out during the morning drop-off hours. Many folks came to school, saw it was dark and took their children home again. I would have done the same: how can you trust a dark school in an area like this? The principal at dismissal every day, thanked the children for coming to school and asked them to come again. Crazy. The schoolrooms were either way too hot or too cold, very outdated with hand-written signs in bathrooms about plumbing problems, had broken chairs for kids to wobble through class hours. .....there are absolutely no transluscent windows downstairs, many painted with black magic marker, for safety, I guess.

In light of that, this picture taken on the front steps of the school, seems miraculous and almost incredible, doesn't it?

OrchKids has added a vibrant musical life to this depressing school. Upon entering you immediately see the wonderful mural project: over the summer, OrchKids painted all along the hallways their depictions of people playing musical instruments in bright colors. It is beautiful.

To the children it must seem that they have two lives in that one building: one that is familiar in the classrooms until 3:30 and then another life full of shiny instruments and plans to go perform in places far away, people coming to take their pictures, coming to give workshops, giving them lots of attention.

I will not lie to you: the challenges facing the bold people leading OrchKids are considerable.

Watching the OrchKids staff foster the trust they are slowly building to the children in their care, I get a glimpse of what it could mean both to the children and the adults to commit to each other daily, to tackle the challenge of musicianship together, so witness them becoming more comfortable in a more care-free world outside of this ghetto, for the world to see what possibilities there are for children like Ashanti if she can develop what I believe lies inside her.

Unless we spend the time to interact intensively with those living in poverty we will have absolutely no idea what these children and their families are up against. I will certainly not claim to be a specialist now, but these 5 days were so impressive because the director of OrchKids had the fascinating and intimidating idea of putting us in charge for the week. We were leading them through hallways, making their lesson plans, explaining to our classes what we planned to do and decided what they would or would not do on concert day. We were also deciding who goes into time-out for how long, dealing with tears, anger, also joy and pride. It was for this reason that the kids really interacted with us and we with them.

Why music then, why not karate or ping-pong or quilting? How is this so different from other orchestra or band programs?

The age range of OrchKids is K to 4th grade now, remarkably young compared to any public school music program. K and 1st grade do not stay after school, but have wonderful ear-training during the school day by OrchKids staff member Erik Rasmussen. He has them hearing seventh chords and predicting cadences at 5 and 6 years of age! OrchKids in grades 2-4 stay 2 hours per day after school to sing in chorus for 45 minutes with a stunning teacher, and then play their instruments in groups until 6 pm.

I predict that 5 or 6 years from now, many OrchKids will be making music on an absolute even playing field with kids from other parts of town! The ability to bring large groups of people together in a common passionate endeavor is unique to orchestral playing.

El Sistema is magical for its' ability to lift the isolation
caused by poverty.
Many ORCHKids are regularly leaving West Baltimore to be noticed by the outside world while holding instruments in hand.

Can musical excellence be easily achieved when working in this world? Absolutely not. For some children, maybe the biggest benefit will be the ability to sit still and focus for a time. But in that ability lies future magic, too, right? Those who look at a program such as OrchKids without looking at the whole geographical context will miss a lot. If you have time to dive deeply into the children's world in a poor American urban area, you will see things very differently upon your return to your own planet.

By targeting such young children with such an intense program, the benefits should be nothing short of miraculous but it is very tough work and happens in tiny increments one day at a time.

I must say a huge bravo to the staff of ORCHKids in Baltimore!

These kids really love you!