Soldiers use music to inspire social change in Baltimore city youth
May 31, 2012
FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. (May 31, 2012) -- The program is called OrchKids, a year-round, school music program that provides music education, at no cost, to underserved students in Baltimore.
OrchKids was inspired by El Sistema, a Venezuelan program that for the past 40 years has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged children in the country.
Last week, Soldier-musicians from the U.S. Army Field Band joined OrchKids for a five-day workshop at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School.
Staff Sgt. Katayoon Hodjati, leader of the Woodwind Quintet, said the program was a perfect match for her skills and the values of the Army Field Band.
"I have quite a bit of teaching experience, so I feel qualified to do this in addition to the performing I do as part of the Field Band," Hodjati said. "And so this for me is putting together everything I do: the performing, the teaching, being part of the Field Band. I can roll it all into one and have an impact locally, which is really different than what we do when we tour."
Aside from premier musicians working with the students, two main factors contribute to the success of OrchKids, said Nick Skinner, OrchKids manager with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The first is using it as a vehicle for positive social change; the second is democratic access to the arts.
"I like to think of the orchestra as a metaphor for society, and how you have to treat people and fit within a structure, and how you have to be able to contribute positively to something -- and that's really all these elements that are involved in making music with people," Skinner said.
"It's just something that naturally happens. And that is where the social change comes from -- not to mention, of course, just being here."
OrchKids originated as an afterschool program to target times when there is peak trouble with youth, said Skinner.
"We are trying to keep them engaged in something positive, and that is a large part of the social change," he said.
The democratic side of the OrchKids program is simply allowing children to have access to musical education and the arts. Many of the schools, said Skinner, are unable to provide music education due to budget cuts and lack of funding. So OrchKids fills the gap and opens doors for Baltimore City youth.
For Skinner, music education is a right not a privilege. He and his colleagues work hard to bring students a level of music education that is inspiring. He often invites guests such as the Woodwind Quintet to work with the youths and showcase all the possibilities that exist through music.
Hodjati has a talent when it comes to working with OrchKids. She has fun, but also instructs in a way that students can relate to. While working with the elementary students, Hodjati used an example of making a chocolate chip cookie to relate what the students were creating in the musical workshop.
"When you put a piece of music together, you have to put all the ingredients in -- so all the accompaniment is different ingredients," Hodjati explained. "We add one ingredient at a time and it doesn't sound like much until you add the chocolate chips, which is the melody. Then you put it all together and you have a chocolate chip cookie, which is the accompaniment with the melody."
Easily-digestible lessons like this made the Soldier-musicians of the Army Field Band a welcomed addition to the program.
OrchKids started in 2008 and has since grown exponentially with new students joining each year. Skinner plans to add a new grade each year and eventually work with students throughout high school. By that time, he expects more student mentors to help with the program as well.
"You take the student that knows two notes, and he teaches the kid that knows one note and so on and so forth," Skinner said. "Even though they may not be teachers, they can tell someone how to put their instrument together and how to hold it. They can teach them a couple of notes. And once we have hundreds and hundreds of kids here, we are going to be relying on the older students [who] have been in the program for four or five years to step up and be leaders within this program."
Because students spend upward of three hours a day in the program, parents are becoming more involved in school. Skinner and his team have even combined some events such as "Report Card Night" with music to get more parents and guardians involved in the children's education.
OrchKids is performing a big community concert on the night when parents come to pick up the report cards, said Skinner. Before initiating the concert, the school would typically hand out about 5 percent of the report cards to parents. Now, they hand out upward of 80 percent.
Because of these concerts, every parent is going to come up to see their children perform, said Skinner.
"So they come in and they have to get the report card, and they have to talk to their teachers because their report card is their ticket into the show," Skinner said.
"If we weren't in the schools, you're talking about hundreds and hundreds of kids that would never have had the opportunity to hear the wonderful group [Army Field Band Woodwind Quintet] that we had here today or be exposed to instruments or have the opportunity to play an instrument. Giving a child the gift to play an instrument is a gift of a lifetime. And what that can do to transform a child's life is just a very powerful thing. And these elements are really the foundation of the program."