Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra Shares Music, Experience

Mike Lawson • News • February 22, 2016

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Every Tuesday afternoon about 4 p.m., students armed with the tools of classical musicians begin packing into Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Richmond.

They come from across the Richmond region and attend a dozen different schools. They range from early-elementary schoolers to seniors in high school. More than 200 show up each week for a chance to learn from the city’s top musical organization.

The students at MLK each perform with one of three ensembles in the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra Program, which started in 1962. A fourth ensemble practices about the same time at Dominion Arts Center, formerly Richmond CenterStage. There are fees for participation.

These are children who have shown proficiency in their chosen instruments, mostly strings, and are taking their musical education to the next level. Some will work their way up through the ranks and, possibly, play on the biggest stages with top orchestras.

Not 50 feet from where the students rehearse, kids in MLK’s after-school Boys and Girls Club gather in the lunchroom. This group is louder, rowdier.

MLK, a new school building, draws from several public housing communities in the East End — a swath of the city that long has been home to about half of Richmond’s poor, according to the Richmond school system.

The juxtaposition between the beautiful music and the hardscrabble existence of MLK’s students can be jarring.

But the symphony, the students, the conductors and school officials see the music as a way to bridge the gap. Bringing the students and the music to MLK shows that the universal power of music is transcendental and, more importantly, is accessible, they say.

Poorer students “have some unique situations, but music can break down all those barriers,” said Christie-Jo Adams, conductor of the String Sinfonietta.

“Just being exposed to this type of music, this type of environment, playing at CenterStage can just open doors for the kids and make them realize there’s more to life than what I think it is.”

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