Caesar Castor plays an orchestra instrument that is as tall as he is. He was drawn to the bass because of its impressive size, and when the sixth grader plucks and bows the strings on the body of its wooden frame, it makes him feel like a lion tamer bringing the king of beasts into submission. The five-foot bass bellows at his command.
The nonprofit Atlanta Music Project (AMP) supplied Castor with his bass. “They said this is the biggest one. I don’t like small instruments,” he said.
An instrument of that size usually costs about $3,000 to buy in music stores; hourly lessons are typically priced at $90. But at Utopian Academy for the Arts (UAFA), Castor is learning to play the bass for free thanks to the school’s dedicated community partners at AMP. Founded in 2010, AMP provides world-class music training and performance opportunities for students in urban, underserved communities across the metro area.
All AMP programming is offered tuition-free, reducing barriers to access for those with financial hardships. Students who join AMP afterschool orchestra programs, however, must commit to attending all classes. AMP supplies everything else that they need to be successful—music instruments, classes, materials, teaching artists (professional musicians and music educators), and opportunities to shine on center stage.
The afterschool orchestra program at UAFA serves elementary and middle school students.
“This is a new program and school for us. We only come one day a week, but what our students have been able to accomplish in that short amount of time is very magnificent,” said AMP orchestra instructor Vanessa Hall, who has been playing stringed instruments for 20 years.
AMP is one of several partnerships that UAFA has established to expand opportunities for students. UAFA Elementary also collaborates with Atlanta Ballet to provide dance instruction and Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company to teach drama, for example. At UAFA High, students collaborate with experts at Trilith Studios and the Story Arts Collective, which hosts challenges that have students creating animated short films in a school day.
Hall said that playing an instrument in the orchestra program at UAFA will help students to improve their academic focus. “Playing an instrument demands you to pay attention. It demands memory and analytic skills,” she said. “Stringed instruments are fretless, so they don’t really have guides like a guitar might have. Students have to use their ear for intonation and muscle memory. Handling the bow, they have to learn how to bring out the tone quality of the instrument.”
The new UAFA + Atlanta Music Project Orchestra held its debut performance in December.
Clad in black, the students basked in the spotlight of the Linda Faye Stevenson Black Box Theatre as they plucked Christmas carols on the strings of their violins, violas, cellos, and bass instruments in unison. It was the first time that orchestra performers played in a holiday concert at UAFA.
Three months later, at the spring concert, the same students were carefully sliding their bows across strings, producing harmonies that brought parents, siblings, UAFA Board members and friends to their feet to applaud their progress.
Board Chair Joshua Menifee said, “We have got some of the most incredible teachers here that are in the industry and are making things happen, and they are teaching our kids how to do it, too,” he said. “Every Sunday, I play the drums at a church because I started when I was their age, so every week, I am making money… using the talents that were instilled in me. What we are doing here is very important. The talent that they displayed will help them in their future.”
Hall was also impressed. “The students are plucking and bowing and reading scaled rhythms,” she said. “They just started taking their instruments home in January. Everything they learned, they had to do it pretty much at break-neck speed. I’m so pleased with their progress.”
Castor, the bass player, is also enjoying his instrument. “I like how loud it is,” he said.
Sixth grader Naima Shabazz says playing the violin is “cool.” And now when she hears music on the radio or online, she notices when a fellow violinist is playing. “The violin is fun—and challenging,” she said.
UAFA parent Amicole Abdullah said her middle school daughter, Aryss Williams, who sings in the chorus and plays violin, is pretty laid back until she picks up her instrument to practice. “One who is not excited about anything, is excited about the violin.”