By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
Collyn Edwards can wail.
“I like to play the trumpet because I just like the sound of it!” Edwards said gleefully on a recent afternoon, proceeding to jam out a rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a horn nearly as big as he is.
The 10-year-old, a fifth grader at Cathedral Academy at Pompei (CAP) on Syracuse’s north side, is one of 68 CAP students in first through sixth grades enrolled in the Imagine Syracuse Young Musicians Project. Newly instituted at CAP this school year and modeled after Venezuela’s famed El Sistema program, the Project provides students with two hours of free, small-group music instruction every day.
“Imagine Syracuse’s mission is to provide affordable, accessible music education for all children,” said the nonprofit’s executive director Jessie Keating. “The Young Musicians Project takes that notion one step further, using musical training to strengthen urban education and give underserved children a vehicle for improving their lives and their communities.”
Each day after school, local professional musicians and trained music instructors teach the children to play brass, woodwinds and strings, instruments donated almost entirely through a grant from national retailer Music & Arts. The afternoons also include choir, Brazilian and African drumming and dance.
“Having the Young Musicians Project [at CAP] is such a blessing,” said Dr. Patricia Schmidt, CAP’s development director. Though the school offers music class to all students once a week, access to instrument instruction, especially from such skilled teachers, would not be available without the Project. Schmidt estimates that this is the first formal musical instruction for about 90 percent of the students.
The Project’s intensive method has many benefits musically — students who receive small-group instruction every day learn their instrument about three times faster than they would with other teaching methods, Keating said — but the Project does more than just teach music.
“There has been an incredible number of studies done on the positive impact of music on IQ, math and reading scores, academics generally,” said Keating. That bears out at CAP as well; Keating said 100 percent of the students involved in the Program will pass their grade levels this year. Participants’ grades and ELA scores from this year and last year will also be compared, in hopes of seeing a correlation between involvement in the Project and improved academic performance.
But for Keating, the Project’s most profound impact is on the children’s emotional and social wellbeing. Through musical instruction from solid role models, they learn not just the pure joy of making music but also personal accountability, the rewards of discipline and the importance of teamwork. They then take those lessons off the stage and into the world.
“An ensemble, an orchestra, is a metaphor for the community,” Keating said. “If you’re doing your best on your violin, then that makes the entire orchestra sound better. If you’re doing your best in your community, then that makes the whole community better.”
The Project is also helping to build bridges between communities. About 80 percent of CAP students are members of refugee families; music creates common ground between them and their classmates in their new home.
“Music can help these children overcome challenges and bridge gaps of language and culture,” Keating said.
The Young Musicians also collaborated with the Syracuse Children’s Chorus in a performance at Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel May 6 that featured song, instrumental music, dance and art. Over the course of many Saturdays, CAP’s mostly urban students and the Chorus’s mostly suburban students got together to rehearse, share music, create art and learn more about one another. Fast friendships were formed.
“After the performance, all the kids were hugging and crying and saying they’d miss each other,” Keating said. All of the CAP students expressed an interest in joining the Chorus next year, too, Keating added.
Keating and Schmidt are committed to continuing the Project at CAP, but raising enough money to pay the teachers what they deserve is a challenge. Earlier this year, when hoped-for funds didn’t come through, the teachers took a voluntary 50 percent pay cut to keep working with the students they’ve fallen in love with, Keating said. Imagine Syracuse will continue to pursue donations from individuals, corporations and foundations in hopes of bringing the program back for a second year.
Amaya Sawyer, 10, definitely wants to be a part of the program again in the fall. The fifth grader can also play a mean “Star-Spangled Banner” (from memory, no less), moving her bow gracefully across the strings of her violin. It’s hard to believe she only began playing the instrument in September.
“I picked the violin because I thought it’d be fun. Plus I don’t have the energy to blow stuff like oboe or flute,” she said with a giggle. Sawyer said she loves playing music, both after school and in performances, and she’s excited to perform at CAP’s final spring concert on May 23.
For that performance, Sawyer and the other string musicians have been working on a number that perfectly captures their spirit and talent. After taking a couple of passes at the last few bars, they nailed the final notes and jumped to their feet, bows in the air, to shout the finale: “We will, we will rock you!”
Imagine Syracuse Young Musicians Project’s final performance will be held at Our Lady of Pompei Church, 301 Ash St., Syracuse, at 7 p.m. on May 23. For more information about the Project, visit www.imaginesyracuse.com and www.capsyracuse.org.