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A note of hope for Roxbury youth through music

Posted by boston.com  December 16, 2013 11:49 AM

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Members of the Roxbury Youth Orchestra teach children how to properly hold a bow.

A melody came from a small classroom in the Bridge Boston Charter School one day last month, long after the school day had ended. The tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” filled the empty halls, accompanied by cheers.

The audience, a crowd of toddlers, had settled in for a musical treat, as a group of students, ages 12 to 19, classically rocked them in a concert. The young fans erupted into screaming and applause following each song, as if a celebrity graced the front of the room.

To add to the experience, performers gave lessons at the end on properly holding instruments, creating a makeshift music class that lasted into the evening.

The performers form the Roxbury Youth Orchestra, an after-school program created as a musical introduction for youth in underserved communities.

“The little kids were so cute! It was so much fun to see them love music that much and engage with us,” said Kurt Spain, an 18-year-old senior at Madison Park High School in Dorchester who has been a member of the orchestra since September.

The concert was the culmination of months of work by the orchestra, as members learned to play the cello and violin, among other instruments.

“Everyone, from their parents to community members, has seen a change in the attitude of these kids,” said world-class violinist David France, who launched the orchestra in February. “It’s increased their discipline and creativity. Those are skills you need everywhere.”

France set out to connect music, youth and social change, after he was selected as a Sistema Fellow in 2011, a program through the New England Conservatory. This landed the Hartford, Conn., native in Boston and inspired him to create his own umbrella organization, Revolution of Hope, to continue the goals of El Sistema, a program from Venezuela that inspires the creation of youth orchestras.

France brought the initiative to the Dearborn Middle School in Roxbury, where the principal offered him free practice space in the school. France said he chose the area for its economic and racial disparities, which limit options for children with musical interests.

“I just started biking around and asking around for schools. ‘Do you know where there is a middle school?’ I would ask,” he recounted. “The principal [at Dearborn] agreed -- but I don’t think he expected the results we saw when the students came in.”

In the beginning, the program had “a dedicated core” of about eight students who regularly practiced during the week, said Aaron Fried, 23, a volunteer with the program since its launch. Fried and other volunteers would play for the students during lunchtime, hoping to get them interested in the program.

Over time, the orchestra has attracted close to 20 students, expanding beyond Dearborn to include three other Boston schools. The group practices at Dearborn and performs at other schools, such as Bridge Charter.

Practices are intense for the youngsters, who typically gather every weekday after school for about two hours.

“It’s really great to see them done with school and still wanting to show up each day and even stay longer,” said Josh Knowles, 23, a volunteer teacher for the program. “They naturally start helping each other and perfecting their skill. I’ve never seen kids progress so quickly,” he added.

The program relies heavily on donations. France and volunteers routinely raise funds by playing their instruments at the Downtown Crossing T station. France also started an instrument drive to secure donated instruments for the orchestra.

“My mom couldn’t afford a string instrument. This seemed an obvious choice,” said Shirley Wang, 17, a member of the orchestra since September and a student at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math & Science in Roxbury, one of the schools participating. “It’s really something I’m always excited to go to.”

This isn’t France’s first experience with this type of program. While living in Bermuda, he partnered with outreach programs at low-income schools to encourage hundreds of students to play the violin. During that time, a YouTube video he watched would change his life. He was awed by a Venezuelan youth orchestra that was formed with members from some of the poorest neighborhoods. That “El Sistema” model inspired him.

France has performed at Carnegie Hall, among other venues, and has collaborated with popular artists, including Kenny Rogers, John Legend, Smokey Robinson and Josh Groban. The challenges of being a black violinist inspired him to teach others in underserved, minority communities, he said.

“We don’t know the struggles these kids are facing, but this is a safe place they can come to,” France said. “It’s been a dream come true to see them grow.”

He said he hopes the orchestra will continue to expand in the Mattapan and Dorchester areas, as well as attract students of younger ages.

This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.

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