In Baltimore, a free after school music program called OrchKids is being used as an instrument of change for children in underprivileged neighborhoods. In the past 10 years, more than 1,300 children have received free group music lessons, and free instruments, from flutes to trumpets to violins.
The program was started by Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, who said OrchKids also aims to create social change in a city where about 40 percent of the population live in poverty. She hopes that if more children of color learn an instrument that “orchestras will better reflect the diversity of our communities.”
For 15 year old Nema Robinson, OrchKids has given her more opportunities than she ever imagined. Four years ago, the quiet teenager started taking the group violin lessons and quickly progressed.
Her teacher, Ahreum Kim, grew up in Korea and studied at the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
“Nema’s determination has helped make her a top violin student” Kim said. “OrchKids is doing a lot for Nema, by giving her confidence, the practice of being in front of an audience, and musical skills she can be proud of,” she added.
Nema’s musical journey began when she and her mother, Susan Johnson, saw an OrchKids concert. Johnson was amazed to see black kids performing classical and opera music. “You just don’t see that,” she recalled thinking, “And I’m elbowing Nema and telling her, ‘This is what you should be doing.”
Nema enthusiastically agreed, and soon after started taking violin lessons that have given her the opportunity to play all kinds of music. She is especially proud of being a violinist in the Orchkids jazz band.
OrchKids has been instrumental in guiding many students, some from difficult backgrounds, by providing a place where they feel respected and safe.
“Some of the students come into the class with baggage,” said Kim. “That could be due to poverty, or trouble at home. It is helpful when I learn about their families.”
Nema had a rough start in life as a drug addicted baby. With both her parents in prison, her aunt became her guardian and mother.
“She’s my number one supporter and has helped me a lot,” said Nema appreciatively. She pushes me. If it wasn’t for my mom I don’t think I would really be this good at playing the violin.”
Aside from the camaraderie and the encouragement that OrchKids provides, Nema also enjoys performing. I like seeing the audience, and their clapping and standing up after the performance,” she said. “It just makes my day.”
Thanks to her free violin lessons, Nema was accepted into the Baltimore School for the Arts where she now studies music.
She hopes to earn a college degree in music so she can teach other black children, like herself, how to live their lives on a high note.
“It doesn’t matter what race you are, you can play music. If it’s your passion then it’s your passion,” Nema said with a smile.