Notes of optimism
Music for Everyone giving students an opportunity to get serious about music. By Tom Knapp, Staff Writer email@example.com
They rush into the room as soon as the doors open, with an eagerness that usually suggests there are video games or ice cream inside.
Within seconds, there's the sound of cases snapping open, strings being plucked, bows being dragged across the strings in a cloud of fresh rosin.
It's early Monday evening, and the Music for Everyone string ensemble is preparing for a Sunday afternoon concert. And although there's a certain amount of misdirected energy and a few good-natured complaints when they're told to buckle down, the dozen or so city students seem pretty happy to be there.
"It's cool. It's fun," says violist Sade Cruz, a Hand Middle School seventh-grader.
"It brings music to the air, to life."
Angel Peña, a violinist in sixth grade at Hand, says ensemble practice is better than school.
"You can learn stuff there (at school)," he says. "But you learn more here."
The group of nearly 20 youngsters will perform at 3:30 p.m. today in a free community concert at El Redentor and St. Paul's United Methodist Church, at East Farnum and South Queen streets.
They're the opening act for renowned cellist Jerome Wright, pianist Frances Veri and violinist Michael T. Jamanis at 4 p.m.
This is the second performance in the Tango Torpedo concert series, funded in part by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to bring world-class chamber music to multicultural audiences of all backgrounds.
But while the top-notch trio is the unquestionable headliner, there's a lot of enthusiasm for the openers. Just ask Jamanis, who directs the student ensemble.
"It enables them to take their art to another level," he says. "They get a sense of pride in what they're able to do, something beyond the structure of school.
"Once they come together, it's amazing."
Jamanis provides music instruction at several city schools, "but the kids wanted more," he says. "So we started this after-school program."
Besides getting together each week to practice, the students have played at Clipper Magazine Stadium, Binn's Park and other venues.
"We're trying to create more opportunities for kids to perform in public," says Music for Everyone founder John Gerdy.
"In terms of an activity that builds self-esteem for kids, there's nothing like getting them up in front of a crowd. We're also trying to inspire kids by bringing outside groups into the schools to perform."
The ensemble, composed of students mostly in fourth through eighth grades, meets weekly at Crispus Attucks Community Center.
"These are kids who want to take it a step further," Gerdy says. "They really, really like it."
Gerdy says MFE wants to provide more after-school programs. In fact, the group has given Crispus Attucks a grant to launch similar programs for percussion and choral singing.
At Monday's rehearsal -- a little light on attendance because of Easter -- the students seem tired. Jamanis blames a post-holiday sugar crash and tells them to stand to get their blood flowing.
When he begins a tune, their eyes focus on the music -- their posture is good, their expressions serious. Some kids start smiling halfway through the piece.
Jamanis, too, has a big grin on his face, playing along on his own violin, occasionally stopping to encourage students who are lagging.
"More guts," he shouts over the music. "I want to feel the room shake!"
Heather Fellenser Balay, music teacher at Washington Elementary School, looks on from the sidelines. She's lending a hand -- and reaping the benefits at her school.
"It's a very poor school district -- about 76 percent of our students are under the poverty line," she says. "Some of these kids don't have much of a home life -- but now that we have Michael Jamanis coming into our schools, they have a place to go.
"They'll come in before school to play their instruments, they'll come in after school. They just love to play. It's a creative outlet for them ... that keeps them off the streets."
Holly Workman, who studied under Jamanis for several years at the former Pennsylvania Academy of Music, now helps him mentor kids in the program prior to beginning a college career in music.
"If they have good programs like this, they're more likely to stick with it -- through high school and into their adult lives," she says.
"I think it's important that everyone has a little bit of music in their lives."
n The featured trio following the students Sunday will perform works by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Piazzolla.
Wright is the former assistant principal cellist of the State Symphony Orchestra in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and former soloist with the U.S. Army White House Strings. He will perform on a violoncello made by Giovanni Battista Rogeri in 1677.
Jamanis plays violin in the Newstead Trio, and Veri is a worldwide performer and member of ASCAP.
Announcements and program discussions will be delivered in both English and Spanish.n