The Atlanta Music Project

Mike Lawson • • July 5, 2019

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In Atlanta, Georgia, the Atlanta Music Project, (AMP) is an opportunity for youth in the most under-served neighborhoods to learn, experience and put into their life’s toolkit the experience and discipline of music!

AMP is a life-changing experience to help tilt the playing field of opportunity back to level.

Why would 26-year-old, Canadian born, Dantes Rameau come to Atlanta in 2010 to start an after-school music education project for the underserved, primarily African-American, neighborhoods?

During a recent visit by SBO, Rameau explained, “After I received my training in non-profit management, leadership and education as a 2009 Sistema Fellow at the New England Conservatory, I had the opportunity to apply for program managers jobs at a variety of different institutions and locations. I preferred to use my training, musical aptitude and personal background to start a program from scratch in an African-American community, preferably in a big city with both the need and the resources for a tuition-free program. Atlanta seemed like a great city, especially with its history of civil rights and social justice.” Rameau also mentioned his personal goal of setting an example of what a young black male can accomplish in starting and leading a high-quality musical organization.

What makes Dantes the effective leader that he is? One significant item that sets him apart that Dantes is still involved in the day-to-day operations.

The Sistema Fellows Program of the New England Conservatory was formed to provide a transformative experience for ten Fellows each year. These were to be postgraduate musicians and music educators passionate about creating careers for themselves that connect music, youth development and social justice. This nine-month program operated from 2009 through 2014 graduating fifty leaders, the stated goal of the program. AMP is just one of the many success stories that began with the Sistema Fellows Program.

SBO was invited to attend the AMP Summer Series Orchestras Final Concert held at a local middle school, just a few blocks away from AMP’s new headquarters. The two orchestras were the AMP Philharmonic with 45 students from 5th through 8th grades and the AMP Festival with 40 9th through 12th grades. In addition, the AMP Chamber String and Chamber Wind Ensembles also performed. Rehearsals for this concert began only six days before the performance and totaled about 25 hours. The program included a wide range of material which reflects AMP’s inclusiveness of all types of music.

This concert was funded by the Molly Blank Fund of The Arthur Blank Family Foundation. This is just one of a number of demonstrations by the Home Depot co-founder to assist in the revival of Atlanta’s Westside. Other AMP program sponsors include Kaiser Permanente, MailChimp, TJX, Bank of America and Mercedes-Benz. Broad governmental support comes from all levels along with a variety of philanthropic groups.

Evidence of AMP’s organized discipline were obvious as SBO entered the green room before the concert. The student’s attendance sheets are posted for sign-in at all rehearsals. The parent’s permission lists are likewise posted in full view. The young musicians arrive with a positive attitude and immediately get to the serious business of warming up and tuning up.

From the very beginning in 2010 until May of this year, the staff and headquarters offices were located in cubicles inside the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) offices directly across the street from Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center. Rameau commented, “The ASO and the Woodruff Arts Center have been wonderful collaborators and generous with their space, musicians and staff.”

Over the years as the program grew to the multiple sites it now serves, the storage of instruments, equipment and even music became a logistical challenge. In addition, the headquarters offices were not convenient to any of the neighborhoods served. The need for a single central facility became obvious.

One of the most recent accomplishments of AMP was the opening of their new AMP Center for Performance & Education. Inside, this new rehearsal and performance center offers Wenger Soundlok soundproof rehearsal/practice rooms, a 150-seat high tech auditorium combined with headquarters office space and secure climate-controlled storage.

Like all current AMP sites, it’s located in the neighborhood being served. On May 22nd, with much fanfare and an opening night performance by Grammy award winning artist Lacrae, a renovated chain grocery building became AMP’s new home.

One entire outside wall of AMP’s new headquarters building features a mural which reflects AMP’s close relationship with the neighborhood. At one end is the image of a neighbor couple sitting on their porch, which they did, while keeping a watchful eye on the renovation project as it progressed. In the middle of the mural is the image of an older, classic and collectible Oldsmobile Cutlass which another neighbor donated to be auctioned off to help with the renovation costs. Every person and object in this mural reflects the broad neighborhood involvement at all levels. Even the muralist, Ashley Thomas, is a neighbor, a cellist, and the mother of an AMP cellist!

The importance of community collaboration and cooperation is also seen on the board of directors, an active board of advisors, and a summer series team of three conductors, nearly 30 teaching artists and six site assistants. All three Summer Series conductors returned this year for their fourth seasons with AMP, John Concklin as the Senior Orchestra Conductor. Educated at Vanderbilt, Yale and the Cleveland Institute of Music Concklin is now an assistant professor of conducting at Vanderbilt. Logan Souther’s primary AMP role is as the Junior and Philharmonic Orchestra conductor along with Averil Taylor conducting the Chamber Wind Ensemble.

Where and how did AMP begin? In the 2010-2011 school year, AMP began as the music education component of Atlanta’s after-school program. The group operated in a City of Atlanta recreation center. There were about 25 K-8 students taught by degreed, professional musicians and music educators. The program was a very intensive two hours a day, five days a week.

Initially instrument instruction was for all orchestral strings, flute, clarinet, trumpet and trombone. There was no prior music experience required and no auditions. The AMP program was tuition-free, the only requirement was attendance at EVERY class. A second site offered a similar program the second year. Growth continued with full-time employees going from one to ten, teaching sites to five, and 75 private lessons each week.

Today’s AMP provides more than 5,000 hours of the same intense, tuition-free instruction to over 300 students at six neighborhood sites. Each student receives an instrument, classes, and the instruction by a teaching artist, culminating in numerous performance opportunities. AMP classes include orchestra, choir, musicianship, ear training, music theory, African drum and dance as well as group lessons on violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, guitar and piano. The various ensembles and orchestras perform over forty concerts each year. They have performed in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Aspen and recently, for their first international appearance, Mexico City.

In 2015, nearby Clayton State University established an endowed college scholarship program for AMP students. The AMP program was also recognized as one of the top 50 after-school arts programs in the nation by the White House in 2016 and 2017. AMP is also one of fourteen 2018-19 PlayUSA partner organizations of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute which provides support for instrumental music education programs that work with low-income and underserved K-12 students.

When asked about this successful growth over the nearly first ten years, Rameau responded, “The growth of the Atlanta Music Project is unsurprising to me. To be where we are today was always part of our vision. I always knew that with a strong board of directors, dedicated teaching artists, and time on task…time playing their instruments…our students would develop outstanding character as well as musical skills.”

He continued, “Once the community saw our students’ perseverance and level of musicianship they would be inspired to support them. There are talented hard-working children in all communities, including underserved communities. All they need is to be surrounded with a village of support and meaningful opportunities and the rest will take care of itself. While that’s easier said than done, that’s why we do the work that we do!”

In Atlanta, life is a matter of turning up the AMP so an even wider audience can enjoy the resulting masterpiece! What lies ahead is to be able to provide some additional summer music camp opportunities for the AMP students at the more established music camps across the country. Hopefully AMP’s success, as reported here by SBO, will lead to those opportunities!! AMP offers “to empower underserved youth to realize their life’s possibilities through music.”

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