When 14-year-old Viahn Green joins 90 other young musicians on the stage Saturday night at the Peabody Conservatory for the 15th anniversary concert of the Tuned-In program, there will be a lot on his mind: rosining his bow and really listening to his fellow musicians and performing the original piece of music that he and his classmates composed, and communicating feelings with his cello that are difficult to express in words.
“I’ve had a great mental change since joining this program,” said Viahn, a freshman at Baltimore Junior Academy. “Music has really opened me up and made it easier for me to talk to people. It is helping me get out of my shell.”
But if classical music has changed Viahn, he is returning the favor by helping to change classical music.
Since it was founded in 2007, Tuned-In has been providing classical music training for free to talented Baltimore City and County students, with an emphasis on kids like Viahn from racially diverse or low-income backgrounds.
Fred Bronstein, dean of the Peabody Institute, estimated that more than 500 students have participated in Tuned-In over the years, and that more than three-quarters are Black or Hispanic.
“One of my biggest concerns for classical arts is the lack of diversity in the field,” Bronstein said.
“That is never going to change in the orchestra world unless it changes first in the academic world. You have to create a pipeline by finding young kids of talent and giving them access to the training they need,” he said. “You have to be part of their lives in a meaningful way so they go on to college and can take advantages of the opportunities available to them.
“If you wait to intervene until they’re auditioning for orchestras, it’s too late.”
The statistics bear Bronstein out.
According to a report released last week by The League of American Orchestras, the number of Black musicians performing in orchestras has remained both disproportionately low and largely static over the past decade, rising from 1.8% in the 2013-14 season to 2.4% today, though Black people make up 12.6% of the U.S. population.
The percentage of Hispanic musicians performing in orchestras increased from 2.5% in 2014 to 4.8% now, the report found, though this group accounts for 18.9% of the nation’s residents.
Statisticians project that people of color will become a majority of the U.S. population by 2045.
“We have to change the demographics of who populates the classical music field,” Bronstein said. “Our future depends upon it. If we don’t, there won’t be a classical music field in 20 or 30 or 40 years because there won’t be an audience for classical music.”
Tuned-In isn’t the only Baltimore program exposing kids to the melodies of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
On Wednesday, 78 middle and high school student members of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestras embarked on a 10-day European tour that will include performances in Italy, Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic. They will visit Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s birthplace in Salzburg, Austria; tour a violin-making workshop in Cremona, Italy; and perform in the same Prague concert hall where the famed 19th century composer Antonin Dvorak once presided.
Though the Youth Orchestras aren’t focused on providing performance opportunities for low-income or diverse kids, a handful of Black students as well as several of Asian descent are taking part in the tour, according to Brian Prechtl, the symphony’s interim director of education and community engagement.
Tuition during the school year is about $1,000, Prechtl said, while the tour cost was about $4,700.
“We have financial aid,” said Prechtl, a percussionist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “No child will be turned away. If students are good enough to be in the ensemble but their families can’t afford the tuition, we will make it happen.”
At least two other well-regarded programs in Baltimore also provide free music instruction to students from underprivileged backgrounds: the Baltimore School for the Arts and the BSO’s OrchKids program.
Though there is some overlap, all four music programs have slightly different missions.
The School for the Arts aims to ensure first and foremost that its students graduate with a high school degree.
OrchKids uses music instruction and the analytical skills and discipline it teaches to bring about social change.
The Youth Orchestras are a replacement for the public school symphonies that have largely fallen by the wayside, and give musically inclined kids the opportunity to rehearse and perform.
In contrast, Tuned-In focuses on helping gifted, mostly low-income youngsters prepare for musical careers. You might think of it as a pre-conservatory conservatory.
As Bronstein put it: “Tuned-In takes fewer kids than the other programs and puts them through a longer, more intensive process. They’re getting music lessons on their instruments, and also taking classes in theory and composition and digital music. If your program is going to be successful, you have to fill in all the gaps.”
Tuned-In founder Dan Trahey, 44, was a tuba student at Peabody in the late 1990s when he realized that none of his classmates at the Baltimore conservatory were actually from Baltimore. A decade later, he began planning a program committed to helping talented but disadvantaged kids overcome the obstacles in their paths.
“I talked to parents and kids and teachers and administrators and anyone who could tell me about Baltimore schools,” Trahey said. “The one thing everyone wanted but almost no one had was consistency. We realized we had to start in pre-K and follow our kids into college and beyond.”
Trahey pitched his Tuned-In program to music schools nationwide, from Philadelphia to New York to Detroit.
Only Peabody said yes.
“After a kid gets to a certain age, Tuned-In almost becomes a boutique program that we tailor to each student, whether it’s providing them with homework help or sending food home to their families,” Trahey said. “I’ll say, ‘Oh boy, we better get a math tutor in here or we’re going to lose college scholarship money.’ Their armor has to be secure.”
A year after starting Tuned-In, Trahey was approached by Marin Alsop who at the time was the BSO’s music director.
“Marin saw what we were doing here, and she asked me if I could do something similar for the BSO,” he said.
Of course Trahey said yes. How could he refuse?
OrchKids was founded in 2008. For many years, Trahey ran both programs; he said he finally stepped back from managing OrchKids’ day-to-day operations four years ago when Tuned-In became large enough to demand his full-time attention.
In addition to music instruction, Tuned-In also teaches leadership skills and subtly instills other life lessons. Trahey loves watching his students with their oboes and trumpets and musical scores tumble each day through the front door of the Peabody, one of the grandest public spaces in Baltimore.
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“My little babies are the kings and queens of this place,” Trahey said. “I want them to walk in and have the experience of ownership of a building like this.”
He’s proud of his students’ academic success; 93% enroll in college, Trahey said, many with full scholarships.
He’s proud of their success after leaving school. The earliest graduates are now in their mid-20s and on the very cusps of professional careers. Some are playing on Broadway, or for the New York City Ballet, or are freelancing for regional orchestras.
Trahey is proud that so many alumni have come back to work with Tuned-In.
And on Saturday night, when 90 of Trahey’s babies pick up their musical instruments and walk on stage and perform the original composition that they have created on the theme of turning weaknesses into strengths, he will feel proud all over again.
“I don’t know if I have 30 more years left of doing this,” he said, “but I definitely have 25. That’s when we’ll start to see a generational change in classical music. We’ll see which of our kids are going to be the next J.S. Bach.
“That’s what makes me so excited.”