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DIY in a Major Key

At an experimental music club in South City, talented kids who can’t afford music lessons are learning not just how to read music, but how to play Beethoven’s First Symphony.

SLM October 2010—Orchestrating Diversity from St. Louis Magazine on Vimeo.

Khalid McGhee is playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, his slender fingers blurring up and down the keys. Though his posture is perfectly straight, his fingerwork is astonishing—not just fast, but swinging, like jazz. When he finishes, the crowd packed into Washington University’s Holmes Lounge jumps up, clapping till their hands smart. Conductor Mark Sarich returns to the front of the room and informs the crowd that Khalid is only 16—and that he learned this piece in 8 weeks. But McGhee is far from the youngest musician in the orchestra, and everything about tonight’s repertoire is ambitious: It’s based on the program Beethoven played in 1801 to premiere his Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, including his Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s overture to La Clemenza di Tito. At the end of the night, just for the hell of it, the orchestra plays Rossini’s El Barbero de Sevilla, too, even though it’s not on the program.

The concert is the culmination of an intense summer music-training program called Orchestrating Diversity, where urban kids spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week studying college-level music theory and history and mastering an instrument. It’s based out of the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, the noncommercial performance venue Sarich has run for more than a decade. Though LNAC has offered educational arts programs to urban youth since 1994, this may be its most ambitious program yet. Sarich and LNAC board members Jesse Windels and Max Woods wrote their first grant in February 2009, and had the first summer program up and running by May. This year, they took on junior-high kids as well as high-schoolers, added musician Kory Lyles as a teacher and administrator, and have been working to fill out the year-round programming.

“Ultimately, what we are looking at is a completely stand-alone program that starts at age 5,” says Sarich, “with basic music and movement notions, going into a somewhat more sophisticated singing program, and then basic instrumental expression.”

Though the standards are very high—as Windels notes, the kids never sit around “coloring in pictures of Beethoven”—no one ever sits out because they can’t immediately hit the right notes.

“We had two kids starting on viola this summer,” Woods says, “and we have this philosophy that the day you start on your instrument is the day you play in the orchestra. That’s important in terms of the empowerment issue.”

“It returns us to this notion that music is for playing, not just for listening to or consuming,” Sarich adds.

Orchestrating Diversity definitely ascribes to Lemp’s “DIY or Die” approach. Though the phrase “do-it-yourself” has been appropriated by home-improvement shows, LNAC embraces its original punk connotation—that is, learning to do something in order to empower yourself and others. Music history and theory is taught actively, rather than passively: “Mark’s very keen on Socratic education, so we get the couches in a circle, so we can actually discuss what we’re doing,” Windels says, adding that it also encourage kids to interact outside their default social circles.

More important, Lyles says, “We want the students who have mastered something to be teaching other kids,” and removing the normal classroom hierarchies encourages this. That creates other positive outcomes, too: Last year, when one student dropped out of the program, “The other kids brought him back,” Sarich says. Right before the orchestra went out to play, the student admitted to Sarich that he thought he looked good in a tux—and that this was the first time he’d ever finished anything.

“Our aim is to put social work first, and then put musicianship as an extraordinarily close second,” Windels says. “But we would like to diminish the gap between those two results until it’s almost indistinguishable.”

In that way, Orchestrating Diversity is similar to El Sistema, a Venezuelan music program that began 35 years ago in a Caracas parking garage. Founder José Antonio Abreu started with a small group of students that included some of Caracas’ poorest kids. Now El Sistema’s núcleos (literally, nuclei) serve about 300,00 kids a year, many of whom go on to play in top-notch orchestras. The recently established El Sistema USA is now trying to start 50 núcleos in the U.S. This spring, Stanford Thompson, an Atlanta-born trumpeter and El Sistema USA fellow, visited LNAC to see Orchestrating Diversity firsthand.

“He spent a day here, and was very excited about what we’re doing,” Sarich says. “And now we’re on the list; it’s a big deal.”

No matter what happens with the núcleos, Orchestrating Diversity is already constellating miracles in the here and now. “We’re starting to see kids from Orchestrating Diversity coming down to the Arts Center for shows,” Lyles says. “There’s a reason Orchestrating Diversity grew out of the venue. For them, it connects to the ownership they can take in their lives, and feeding that into their music…it’s really inspiring to see.”

For more information, contact the Lemp Neighborhood Arts Center, 3301 Lemp, 314-771-1096, or go to orchestra.lemp-arts.org.

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