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Taking pride in their musicianship: Marin Alsop (left) with the children of OrchKids (photo courtesy of Johns Hopkins University)

The school, as we arrive, is in lockdown. Lockdown? “It’s what we do when there’s been a shooting,” says the young man who eventually lets us in. “Today, it’s just a practice drill.”

The last shooting was two weeks before, a drive-by burst that wounded five parents as they waited to collect their kids. No arrests were made. The police in Baltimore are themselves in lockdown since the death of an unarmed suspect. The city, briefly the nation’s capital after the British burned down Washington in 1812, is a tinderbox of racial tensions, a gaping black hole in the American dream.

I’m in West Baltimore, ten minutes’ drive from the Washington Memorial, and 40 from Barack Obama’s White House. It’s late afternoon. The streets are deserted, most houses derelict, barely a soul to be seen. The school I’m visiting is built like a high-security prison, with massive gangways for crowd control, neon lighting and steel shutters. It is after school hours and the students who have stayed behind, which is most of them, are playing stringed instruments or singing in a choir.

Sweetly, and incongruously. Eight years ago, the Baltimore music director Marin Alsop blazed into her office with a documentary on El Sistema, the Venezuelan music nursery. “We gotta do that here,” she declared. The first school to introduce OrchKids was shut down before the term was out. In Baltimore, public schools are forever getting reallocated to needier areas.

Unfazed by the initial setback, OrchKids today looks after 820 schoolchildren most afternoons, teaching them musical and communications skills, feeding them light snacks and the supper most might not get at home. “Pretty much everyone here,” says Paul Meecham, president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, “has a family member in prison or shot dead on the streets.” 

The teaching at OrchKids, so far as I can tell on brief inspection, is motivated and engaging. The instructors are Peabody Conservatory students or semi-retired musicians, patient, focused and encouraging. The children, as young as six years old, are taught to take pride in their musicianship and to address others with courtesy and consideration. The ones I meet are painfully polite, groomed to make a good impression.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I ask one prize pupil.

“A tuba player,” he announces. “Or maybe a truck-driver.”

The boy’s ambitions, constricted as they are, illustrate the artificiality of our connection. For black American children in West Baltimore, orchestral music belongs nowhere in their cultural make-up. No one they know has ever played in or gone to a symphony concert. Bach and Beethoven were aliens from Planet Zog until the Baltimore Symphony came offering free afternoon care, a few hours of safety from the desolate streets where a child’s life can be snuffed out without warning.

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Lawrence Eckerling
December 3rd, 2015
2:12 PM
Music is not going to solve everything. And you are right, it can't cure cancer. But just as musical performance quality is subjective (and can't be quantified with research data), every musician knows that it touches you in your "heart", and taps into feelings beyond places where words take you. That cannot help but make a better person, and that cannot help but improve the society at large. You can't quantify this either, but we know it's true. And I swear, if every person was able to feel things deeply, such a person is much less likely to take a semi-automatic gun and kill 30 people, and then kill him/herself. I can't prove it, but I just know it. Lawrence Eckerling, Music Director, Evanston Symphony Orchestra

December 2nd, 2015
7:12 PM
I do agree with the comments of enemigopublico. What is missing from the envious US reports on El Sistema is the fact that the US already has a well-developed program of training in music and the arts for underserved communities. It was started in innercity settlement schools at the beginning of the 20th century and exists as the membership of the National Guild of Community Arts Education. If you want to give money to help underprivileged kids learn an instrument, find a school in your area on the NGCAE website and make a donation.

November 29th, 2015
5:11 PM
Enimegopublico, does your comment mean that this is not helping these children? Of course it is helping them, and from an orchestra which amongst the orchestras in the USA is not a rich orchestra. Things like this must go on.

November 29th, 2015
11:11 AM
This article injects a very useful dose of sceptical enquiry into a discussion that’s usually romanticized, at times to the point of absurdity. There’s little to argue with in most of it, with the exception of the paragraph on El Sistema in Venezuela, which is wrong in just about every respect. El Sistema wasn’t “designed to rescue barrios urchins from drugs and guns” – it was designed to train up young, predominantly middle-class musicians for Venezuela’s orchestras. Go and check out its first constitution from 1979. The stuff about rescue came much later, when the program came under more pressure to justify its existence. Even now, this aspect is much exaggerated. The chorus accompanying La Bohème in Milan was the National Youth Choir, which includes people of all social strata, not a chorus of former street kids. Its “stunning results” are musical, not social. There is no rigorous evaluation or compelling evidence that shows that it works as a social program, as even its main funder, the Inter-American Development Bank, has admitted. Indeed, Venezuela’s social problems have got worse as El Sistema has got bigger. Given that El Sistema was not created to solve social problems in Venezuela, and there’s no good evidence that it does, it’s hardly surprising if it’s failing to do so outside Venezuela. Norman’s scepticism is more justified than he realises.

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