In Baltimore, violins to combat violence

BALTIMORE (AFP) – As the conductor raises her baton, dozens of children come to order, and their everyday cacophonous chatting gives way to a melodic cascade of notes.

The 60 or so students are part of OrchKids, a programme run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is hoping to bring change to the troubled city through the power of music.

“We are trying to combat some of the social challenges here in Baltimore,” said Programme Director Nick Skinner.

One recent OrchKids concert took place just a few blocks from where Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, was arrested in April 2015.

Gray fell into a coma while in police custody and later died, and the incident sparked violent protests in Baltimore, a port city plagued by violence, drugs and crime.

“Charm City” is now one of the most violent in the United States (US), with an average of more than 300 murders a year. Nearly a quarter of its 620,000 residents live below the poverty line.

In recent years, urban renewal projects have sought to break the spiral of gloom, but in some neighbourhoods, only a few blocks separate condemned buildings from hip hotspots.

Those behind OrchKids remain optimistic.

In all, 1,300 children – from grade school to high school – are enrolled in the programme, which offers them free music education, four afternoons a week after school.

The programme offers them a safe place to go after school without charge – easing the minds of busy parents who would otherwise need child care or be forced to leave their children unsupervised.

Morgan Headspeth (L), Kimora Utsey (C) and Tabria McRae (R), violinists in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids programme, perform during the String Fling concert at the Lockerman Bundy Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland. – PHOTOS: AFP
Dajuan Gross, a cellist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids programme, walks over to his parents after performing for the String Fling concert
Cellist mentor Carolyn Rosinsky helps tune a cello for Stefany Carbajal, a cellist in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s OrchKids programme

“We’re providing not only academic support but also a healthy snack and a dinner before they go home,” Skinner explains.

OrchKids – which takes inspiration from El Sistema, Venezuela’s venerable music education programme – started a little more than a decade ago with just 30 students.

“Back when we started the programme in 2008, most of the community thought that we were actually undercover cops,” Skinner said.

“There was no trust,” he added, recalling the long history of distrust, especially in the city’s African American community, toward local officials and a police force seen as racist and corrupt.

This year, that first class of 30 students is getting ready to graduate from high school and some will head on to university – firsts for many of the families involved.

Some of the OrchKids students have studied at the prestigious summer camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan.

Ludy Gutierres, a 12-year-old who plays the bassoon, even performed for Barack Obama.

“Yeah, that was just once… It was fun,” Ludy said, nonchalantly, as if playing a concert for a former US president were an everyday experience.

Even if music is not a career option for most of the students enrolled in OrchKids, the programme offers them a perspective that is not always available to inner-city kids, especially in Charm City.

Bella, a middle schooler who also plays bassoon, knows that her participation in OrchKids will give her a leg up when it comes time to apply for college, even if she does not want to be a musician.

“It’s a good way to teach patience,” she said.

The Baltimore Symphony’s long-time conductor, Marin Alsop, has lent her considerable influence to OrchKids.

Alsop, who leads orchestras around the world, has made Baltimore her home since 2007, when she became the first woman to lead a major US symphony orchestra.

She said using her platform to make classical music more accessible, and possibly offer a positive influence to children in her home city, was important to her.

“The issues of violence that we face are pretty overwhelming,” Alsop explained, adding that the city’s children “live under a lot of stress”.

“That really takes a toll and I think through programmes like OrchKids, they start to see a different kind of future,” she added.

“They’re able to travel to play… they’re receiving positive affirmation for what they’re doing,” she said.

“As a result, many of them are looking at futures that they wouldn’t have considered before.”

The American conductor – who also leads the Sao Paulo State Symphony Orchestra and is chief conductor designate of the Vienna Radio Symphony – said she hopes to reach 10,000 children through OrchKids.

That would be one in eight kids in Baltimore’s public school system.

“I’d love Baltimore to become known as the City of Music rather than the City of Murder,” she said.