As she peeks her head into the performance hall from backstage to watch a throng of octogenarians shuffle slowly to their seats, 10-year-old Alana Kyser cannot help but begin her performance a few minutes early.
“Oh, oh, oh, it’s magic!” the Dufrocq fourth-grader sings, bobbing so the maroon beads and small white plastic bows in her dark braids shake.
“That song is so old!” Daylon Daniel, a fourth-grader at LSU Lab, says, ribbing his friend behind a wide smile.
“I know,” Kyser says. “But I like it.”
It’s late afternoon on a frigid December Saturday for the Kids’ Orchestra’s First Annual Winter Concert, the culmination of the innovative new after-school program’s first semester of combining elementary students from several area schools into a single musical entity featuring recorders, violins and percussion.
Today’s audience is a hundred or more residents of St. James Place retirement community. Mixed in among the elderly and lining the walls for this standing-room-only performance are supportive parents armed with cell phones and video cameras aimed silently at two rows of bright orange and mint green paint buckets overturned and waiting for small swift hands to tap them to life.
Behind the scenes, final preparations are underway.
“It’s 4 o’clock,” announces Eliza Eaton, a classical musician and former Teach for America instructor whose job today seems to be making sure everyone is where they need to be when they need to be there.
“That’s okay. We can start at 10 after,” offers the group’s conductor, Raul Gomez, before adding a timely, “Now, don’t be nervous,” to encourage the children.
“I have to get used to this, because I’m going to be a singer,” Kyser says in a bout of self-reflection that shifts key in staccato from a personal pep talk to something resembling the preamble of an American Idol audition tape. “One day five million, 12 million, 37 million people will be watching me.”
Standing next to Kyser, 9-year-old Carlyle Smith slaps two drumsticks against his blue jeans as if leading a drumline marching at the Bayou Classic. Behind him and snaking around a corner, a long line of bandmates, aged kindergarten through fifth grade and sporting baby blue Kids’ Orchestra T-shirts, boils with anticipation.
“If we could bottle the energy of these young people we could run the world on it,” says Gwen Jones, a mezzo soprano and the project’s executive director, who just purchased the last snare at a local music shop a few hours earlier. “Apparently there’s been a run on drums in this town.”
One brave soul calls out for cookies. Those are for later, an instructor reminds them.
“Clap once if you can hear me,” Eaton calls out.
Boom—the group claps in unison.
“Clap twice!” Boom. Boom.
“I’m a little nervous, yeah,” whispers Marquis Walls, a fourth-grader at Melrose Elementary. “But we feel like a team, so it’s okay.”
Most hail from Melrose and Capitol Elementary, or LSU Lab and Lanier Elementary, an area charter school, but as these fledgling musicians practice after school at Capitol a month before the Winter Concert, violins are so new to them, they are almost unrecognizable. Their weight and feel are as foreign as adulthood is distant.
“Hey, there’s nothing in mine!” reports Dieonte Bindon, picking up a black violin case from the hallway floor.
“Yes there is,” Ella Mitchell counters. “They are very light.”
The weather is warm and breezy, so Gomez, an acclaimed violinist, composer and Huel D. Perkins Fellow in the Doctor of Musical Arts program at LSU, conducts his violin lesson outdoors. They talk basics: the neck, the bridge, the angle and grip of the bow.
The resultant sounds do not resemble those of classical musicians, but instead a nursery of tiny, beached whale calves longing loudly for the ocean. These are eager beginners, though, and their enthusiasm outshines their abilities.
Among them is young Jason Fan, a kindergartener at LSU Lab. Fan has a broken collarbone, but he is still here, learning.
“Jason told me, ‘Dad, even if I only have one hand, I’ll still go to music class,” says his father, Wen Fan. “That’s how much he enjoys it.”
It’s an infectious energy as bright as the clean yellow kitchen sponges that sit wedged between their chins and the violins, as if ready for soaking up and storing away elementary mathematics for a new arithmetic, English grammar lessons for a new language, American history for their own creative futures, past prejudices for their new musical partners.
“Yes, they are learning about music, but also about working together and discipline and leadership,” Gomez says. “I think they are excited to have an outlet for their creativity.”
When a sermon at St. James Episcopal Church challenged her to find ways of connecting with others of different racial, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, Kids’ Orchestra founder Nanette Noland took inspiration from a 60 Minutes segment about Los Angeles Symphony conductor Gustavo Dudamel and decided that music ought to be used to bridge the gap between public and private school students in Baton Rouge.
“We’re about social change,” Noland says of the program that launched last fall and is funded by the Pennington Foundation, The Powell Group and others, including Noland’s own foundation. “How many 18-year-olds in the area went to prison last year? We’re hoping that because of Kids’ Orchestra, 10 years from now, that number will be down.”
Like Gomez, who grew up in a low-income area of Costa Rica, Dudamel’s early education was sparked by participation in a free music program called El Sistema that has become a worldwide model for learning and mentorship with group performance at its core. Launched in 1975 by one instructor and 11 students playing music together in a parking garage in Caracas, Venezuela, El Sistema now has more than 300,000 low-income Venezuelan children partaking, and crime and dropout rates have decreased.
In a glowing first-hand report for London’s The Telegraph, acclaimed composer Julian Lloyd Webber called El Sistema the “most extraordinary social phenomenon of our times,” and Noland hopes her program can use the same model to achieve similar results in Baton Rouge.
Her long-term goal is to make it available to every elementary student in the parish. She wants Kids’ Orchestra to do more than share music. She wants it to shape lives.
“Having something to strive for is the best way to keep children in school and on the right track,” says Eliza Eaton, Kids’ Orchestra’s program director. “Music accomplishes that as well as anything I’ve seen, because it is universal.”
The enthusiastic introductory applause winds down inside St. James Place, and Gomez lifts his arms to conduct. As the bucket band begins, this gaggle of attention-challenged minds that months earlier had struggled to keep time with their teacher’s strident calls of “Miss-uh-si-pee” has vanished.
The group rolls through violin demonstrations of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and even Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Their instruments no longer resemble dying whales, but small, promising music-makers. Their drums do not sound like plastic buckets.
They sound like thunder, like boots on pavement, like sheets of rain pounding on an old tin roof. They sound like whatever Gomez wants them to sound like. They sound like one.
“Hopefully in the future, these children will know that we’re all the same, that there are no real differences in people no matter where they come from or what their parents do,” Gomez says. “Those stereotypes and boundaries will disappear when they start making music together.”