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Thursday, May 8, 2014 - 1:14pm

Bringing The Arts To The Neighborhood With The Atlanta Music Project

Marching band. Orchestra. Choir. There are plenty of schools in the state with music programs right on their campuses.

But what about schools that don’t have music education programs? Or students who can’t afford private lessons or fees for band field trips. That’s where the Atlanta Music Project comes in.

The mission of the Atlanta Music Project is to provide intensive music education for underserved children in their neighborhoods. Classes last two hours a day, three to five days a week. And the only thing required for a student to be in the program: commitment to attending all classes.

Classes include orchestra, choir, musicianship, African drum and dance, and the program also offers group lessons in violin, viola, cello, bass, drum, flute, clarinet and trombone.

The Atlanta Music Project got its start in 2010, inspired by an innovative music program in Venezuela called El Sistema.

“What we learned from watching that program was if you give young children the opportunity to learn and perform at a very intense level, then you will get a great return on your investment,” said Atlanta Music Project co-founder, Aisha Bowden.

The Venezuelan program has been around for decades. But it became famous several years ago when one of its alums, Gustavo Dudamel, started gaining worldwide recognition.

Dudamel is the music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“People wanted to know ‘where did this person come from’,” said Bowden. “Well, he came from El Sistema.”

Bowden and her AMP co-founder Dantes Rameau studied El Sistema extensively, traveling to both Venezuela and the New England Conservatory.

“‘We said ‘We can do this. We can implement a program very similar to this in Atlanta.’ And that’s what we are doing,” said Bowden.

It’s no secret music enriches a student’s educational experience, but Bowden says the Atlanta project looks at statistics and data to measure its impact on academic success.

The program operates in underserved places, especially in areas where there are high dropout rates.

“And studies have shown that students from underserved areas who receive intensive arts instruction are three times more likely to graduate from high school and go to college than their counterparts,” said Bowden. “And that’s what we’re trying to do here. Our students are very talented. They are very bright. They’re brilliant, and we just want to give them the options that we received when we were younger growing up.”

Ask any of the children in the program how much they pay for their instruments and lessons and you might get a puzzled look in return. That’s because the Atlanta Music Project operates completely free of cost.

“We try to give them the best music education and remove any obstacles to that. So we bring free instruments with free instruction right to their neighborhood,” said Bowden. “So even if you don't have a car, a lot of our children can walk home, which is perfect. We’re right there and it becomes a community thing.”

Bowden and the group’s organizers wanted the community to rally around seeing the children in the neighborhood perform, just like they would a local sporting event.

“We love the rush you get when you go to a basketball game or football game. So that’s what we want to do with the orchestra.”

Donovan Fuller and Kamali Brooks are both fourth graders at Perkerson Elementary School, and are violinists in the Atlanta Music Project’s string program. Kamali has been an AMP student for four years. Donovan has been in the program for more than three.

“The violin is a beautiful instrument and it makes a beautiful sound. Sometimes when you play in concerts like rock, you never hear the background but the violin,” said Fuller. “And I chose the violin so I can play in rock and do different things. And sometimes the violin is the loudest instrument in the string section.”

Kamali Brooks says playing in the strings section is a great feeling, and an opportunity not everyone gets to enjoy.

“A lot of people don’t get to do this. I get to learn new stuff every day. I get to play better.”

The students in the program have performed at a variety of venues, from the best music halls in Atlanta to outdoor concerts in the spring and summer.

Bowden says getting the children to commit to the program’s practice schedule isn’t hard, but sometimes convincing the parents can be a challenge –until they see the group in action.

“At first it may seem a little daunting, like ‘do you really need to do that? It’s just music.’ But at the end of the year, and maybe by the end of the semester, you see an actual orchestra and not just a bunch of kids playing around on instruments, but an actual orchestra performing,” said Bowden. “Then we don't have to do any more convincing.”

A behind the scenes video on the Atlanta Music Project’s website showcases reactions from parents of children in the program, including one father who says he was blown away the first time he saw his daughter perform with the orchestra:

“As a unit, the way they came together and the progress that they’ve made… it brought tears to my eyes. To now see her play without looking at the music. It was just amazing.”

Bowden has seen that video numerous times, but it still brings a smile to her face.

“That’s amazing. That’s what we do it,” said Bowden. “We see the change, and the parents see the change.”

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