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Western Massachusetts Music Program Sending Students To LA

Josh Landes
Teaching artist Sean Elligers instructs two students in the Berkshire Children & Families' Kids 4 Harmony program.

A Western Massachusetts family services organization has once again sent Berkshire students to California to participate in a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Last year, WAMC reported on Berkshire Children and Families’ Kids 4 Harmony program, which sent four students across the country to learn and play alongside other aspiring classical musicians. This year, the Pittsfield-based nonprofit has expanded that mission.

“We’re providing music — providing these musical opportunities to children that might not have an opportunity to play music in this type of setting," Artistic Director Alicia Stevenson told WAMC. "Our program meets five days a week, and sometimes on the weekends too, so it’s a very rigorous program. Two hours a day. So after a long day of school, the kids are in our program for two hours.”

She says Kids 4 Harmony, which structures its musical teaching based on the Venezuelan El Sistema educational program, has more than doubled the number of students headed to Los Angeles this year.

“They worked for several months on their pieces and on their scales and the repertoire that they had to learn and they sent it in via video recording," said Stevenson. "And the people out in L.A. reviewed all the applicants from — kids from all over the country, and they selected nine of our students to attend this National Youth Orchestra.”

Stevenson says the program receives grants, but is largely funded by donors across the program’s operational range, which runs from Berkshire County to the Pioneer Valley.

The students will be taking part in the third annual National Youth Orchestra presented by the LA Philharmonic’s Take A Stand Symposium. The program is entirely free for the 12- to 18-year-olds invited to participate in two groups: a 100-member Symphony Orchestra and a Junior String Ensemble for players between 12 and 15.

“When I found out it was like at 1 in the morning because we didn’t get it because of the time difference, so when we got it, I was excited," said Tianna Houle. "I woke up the whole entire house, screaming that I got into LA, so it was really exciting because it took me forever to get in.”

Houle, a violinist, is a 15-year-old Pittsfield High School student. A seven-year veteran of the Kids 4 Harmony program, it’s her first successful audition for the National Youth Orchestra in three tries.

“When I wasn’t getting in I was re-thinking my life decisions on violin, but I kept trying because my friends and teachers were like, if you try, then there will be a chance, and there was,” she told WAMC.

It’ll be her first time leaving the Northeast, and her first time on a plane. Despite the challenge of traveling to a new place and meeting new people, Houle says the program has bolstered her confidence.

“This world, there’s a lot of problems and I feel like a lot of people want to change it but they’re doing nothing about it, and I just hate sitting back watching people being so sad and seeing nothing happen," said Houle, "so I feel like being able to be part of music and help with that is a little thing and everybody can do it.”

“Well, they sent out the paper at my school," said Gerdrose Jean-Louis, "and my mom found it and I was like, I don’t want to do this, and she’s like, OK, I’ll going to sign you up anyways, so.”

Jean-Louis, a cellist, has also been at Kids 4 Harmony for seven years. She’s 14 and also attends PHS. This is her second time going to Los Angeles for the youth orchestra.

“We made really close friendships, so like when it was time to leave everyone was crying because we made so many friends there," Jean-Louis told WAMC. "I still talk to a lot of people from last year.”

She said last year’s trip to Nationals — which was also her first time on a plane — transformed her self-image as a musician.

“I went to LA and I realized that not a lot of people get the same opportunity as me, so even if I think I’m not that good I’m really lucky to have an opportunity to get music lessons for free,” said Jean-Louis.

The nine students will be in Los Angeles this weekend to begin rehearsals for the climatic National Youth Orchestra concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall on July 14th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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