Dantes Rameau had some convincing to do when he approached 10-year-old Donnell Fulton about trying out a new instrument.
“Would you like to try the trombone?”
“Have you ever seen a trombone before?”
“Would you like to try one?”
Donnell still wasn’t persuaded, so Rameau’s questioning continued.
“Do you like jazz?”
“Do you know what jazz is?”
“Have you ever heard of Mozart and Beethoven?”
“That’s okay,” Rameau shot back, smiling. “We’ll teach you.”
The conversation, which ended with Donnell’s first glimpse of a trombone and peer Kenya Jones talking him through the process of assembling it, gets to the heart of the Atlanta Music Project. The City of Atlanta-backed non-profit aims to transform the lives of the city’s most at-risk and economically-disadvantaged youth through low-cost hands-on after school music instruction five days a week. Students in grades first through eighth who hail from some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods study orchestra, choir and other music forms and receive homework help and tutoring from 3-6:30 p.m. Watch an AMP class session:
The effort is part of a national initiative dedicated to pushing music education beyond the boundaries of extracurricular enrichment and using it as a vehicle to enrich the lives of children in underserved urban communities. The program currently serves 24 children at Gilbert House, an historic landmark that now serves as a City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs cultural recreation center. Organizers hope to enroll up to 40 students in the pilot year.
“We’re not just teaching music, we’re using music to change the lives of young people,” said Executive Director and Founder Rameau, an Atlanta newcomer. “What makes music so great and unique is that anyone can do it; you can do it if you’re deaf, blind, rich or poor. This program is a combination of social rescue program and social prevention program.”
The weekly cost per child is determined on sliding scale fees that max out at $30 a week for Atlanta residents, but most parents now pay about $5 — an undeniable bargain for both after school care and professional music instruction. Under the guidance of instructors known as “teaching artists,” students learn “musicianship” and how to play an array of instruments, including the violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet and trumpet. They perform concerts several times a year and will eventually take field trips to various Atlanta cultural institutions such as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Woodruff Arts Center. Although still in the early stages, from all appearances the program seems to already be making an impact.
“I like the way you can connect with people through music,” said Kenya, 12. “I like the way it makes me feel. They do a good job here. They help us with our homework and teach us about music. They understand what we’re going through, like problems at home and school and personal tragedies. They help us in so many ways.”
Cello and bass instructor Jacqueline Pickett said the students have demonstrated great potential in a short time.
“Just in this one month the children are growing exponentially,” she said. “They’re becoming leaders in their schools because of the discipline that they’re learning in this program, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Flute instructor Jessica Sherer echoed a similar sentiment.
“This is just so necessary,” said Sherer, a doctoral student of music. “Anything you can do to give kids goals and positive feedback for something they’ve accomplished is a valuable opportunity.”
Hands-on instrument instruction kicked off this month at the stately Gilbert House, a majestic two-story structure tucked along Perkerson Road in Southwest Atlanta. The first four weeks of the program featured an African drum and dance workshop that culminated with a small concert featuring the kids.
AMP is modeled after El Sistema, a globally-acclaimed youth orchestra program in Venezuela. The Atlanta initiative is the pet project of Rameau, a bassoonist and alum of the inaugural graduating class of the Abreu Fellows Program, a prestigious post-graduate fellowship at the New England Conservatory. The fellowship trains musicians to lead El Sistema-inspired programs in the U.S. and beyond. After studying for one year, including two months in Venezuela, Rameau was tapped by a colleague to launch a program in Atlanta. Though rewarding, he admits the past few months have been hectic, as Atlanta arts maven Camille Russell Love informed him by phone in July that the city would incorporate AMP into its new “Culture Club” after school arts programs slated to begin in September. With the city’s help, Rameau then was charged with recruiting children and assembling his small team of “teaching artists” and administrators in time for AMP’s Oct. 4 launch date.
“I went around to PTA and neighborhood meetings looking for kids,” recalled Rameau. “I just drove around the neighborhood passing out fliers. I literally found some of these kids playing outside one day and then a month later those same kids were here performing. My vision is that there will be no kid in Atlanta who does not have the opportunity to be a part of our program.”
The City of Atlanta provides the facility, facility staff, some instruments, snacks, transportation and basic supplies. The program’s estimated $100,000 annual budget was also partially subsidized by the Coca-Cola Foundation and $19,055 that 163 donors contributed during a 70-day drive on the popular fundraiser website Kickstarter.com. The money was used to hire African drumming instructors and to purchase some musical instruments and sheet music. Rameau also was recently selected among more than 9,000 applicants for a $25,000 grant from America Online’s “25 For 25” grant program, which supports artists leading endeavors that promote social change. Funding for next year is uncertain, but Rameau said he hopes success with the inaugural class will help to attract contributions that can help keep the program afloat next school year.
As for Donnell, it turns out that Rameau’s lobbying efforts were not in vain. One puff into the mouthpiece of the glistening brass instrument and he seemed hooked. Sensing Donnell’s approval, Rameau inquired once again. “Do you want to try playing the trombone?”
This time there were no blank stares or awkward pauses when Donnell responded.
“Yes,” he fired back, with a shy grin and curious spark in his eye. “I like the trombone. I like the sound. It’s really cool!”
To learn more about The Atlanta Music Project, visit www.atlantamusicproject.org. More information on The City of Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs’ Culture Club: An After School Experience is available at www.ocaatlanta.com.
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at email@example.com. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.