Baltimore: As the conductor raises her baton, dozens of children come to order, and their everyday cacophonous chatting gives way to a melodic cascade of notes. The 60 or so students are part of OrchKids, a program run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which is hoping to bring change to the troubled city through the power of music.
"We are trying to combat some of the social challenges here in Baltimore," says program director Nick Skinner. One recent OrchKids concert took place just a few blocks from where Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, was arrested in April 2015.
Gray fell into a coma while in police custody and later died, and the incident sparked violent protests in Baltimore, a port city plagued by violence, drugs and crime. "Charm City" is now one of the most violent in the United States, with an average of more than 300 murders a year. Nearly a quarter of its 620,000 residents live below the poverty line.
In recent years, urban renewal projects have sought to break the spiral of gloom, but in some neighbourhoods, only a few blocks separate condemned buildings from hip hotspots. Those behind OrchKids remain optimistic.
In all, 1,300 children from grade school to high school are enrolled in the program, which offers them free music education, four afternoons a week after school. The program offers them a safe place to go after school without charge easing the minds of busy parents who would otherwise need child care or be forced to leave their children unsupervised.
"We're providing not only academic support but also a healthy snack and dinner before they go home," Skinner explains. OrchKids, which takes inspiration from El Sistema, Venezuela's venerable music education program started a little more than a decade ago with just 30 students.
"Back when we started the program in 2008, most of the community thought that we were actually undercover cops," Skinner says. "There was no trust," he adds, recalling the long history of distrust, especially in the city's African American community, toward local officials and a police force seen as racist and corrupt.
This year, that first class of 30 students is getting ready to graduate from high school and some will head on to university firsts for many of the families involved. Some of the OrchKids students have studied at the prestigious summer camp at the Interlochen Centre for the Arts in Michigan....