July 24, 2019

Trenton Music Makers Chosen For National Education Program

SPECIAL RECOGNITION: The young string players, their teachers, and administrators from Trenton Music Makers have been chosen to take part in PlayUSA, a network of music education organizations based at New York’s Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Nick Donnoli Productions LLC)

By Anne Levin

It has been less than five years since Trenton Music Makers began teaching Trenton Public School students to play violin, viola, cello, and bass. Despite its youth, the program was recently selected for membership in the PlayUSA network, part of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

That means a $30,000 grant, training for teaching artists from Carnegie Hall staff, and interactions with some of the 16 other musical organizations that have also been selected for 2019-20.

“We are delighted, and honored, and proud, of course,” said Carol Burden, executive director of Trenton Music Makers. “This is giving us exactly what we want, which is wonderful professional development, opportunities for our teachers to learn, and a chance to show people that what we’re doing is successful.”

Serving kids in grades 2-12, Trenton Music Makers is based on the El Sistema movement, a global program started in Venezuela in the 1970s. El Sistema uses music and playing in ensembles as platforms for social development. Children from challenged circumstances all over the world have been exposed to the program, which not only teaches them to play an instrument but also helps with academic studies, social interactions, and self-discipline.

El Sistema’s most celebrated graduate is Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor and music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. During the past year, Dudamel took part in a residency at Princeton University that included significant interactions with local El Sistema programs. Trenton Music Makers was among them. Dudamel made it a priority to spend time with the students during events at the University, and in their Trenton location.

Just how much of a role that participation played in PlayUSA selecting Trenton Music Makers for a grant isn’t known. “I think being a community partner in the Dudamel residency is sort of a part of our story of a growing organization,” said Burden. “It was very exciting and inspiring, and the message he was sharing was profound. But aside from that, the idea of Trenton  Music Makers has caught fire in people’s minds. Everyone knows music is great for kids. But at this intense a level, and with kids who don’t normally have access, spending eight to ten hours a week on music — that’s another level.”

Carnegie Hall’s PlayUSA is a 10-year initiative that supports organizations across the country that offer instrumental music education programs to low-income and underserved students in grades kindergarten through 12.

“I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when they were deciding to include us,” said Burden. “We were asked to share some successes we’ve had recently, so that [the Dudamel residency] was clearly a part of our story. But one thing that stood out is that they asked for five-minute teaching video. They wanted to see our challenges as well as the great stuff, because they really want to build a learning cohort.”

The learning cohorts place three organizations together to share experiences and learn from each other, said Karen Cueva, Carnegie Hall’s manager of learning and engagement programs. “We try to connect these groups from across the nation in different ways,” she said. “We want them to learn from each other.”

In addition, Trenton Music Makers and the other PlayUSA participants will participate in webinars, have an “intervisitation” with the other groups at one national site, and be observed by administrators. The grant can be used to underwrite teaching fees; buy, rent, or repair instruments; and other costs.

Trenton Music Makers served about 108 children last year. The coming school year’s programs will include group instruction three days a week for students in grades 2-5 and four days for grades 6-12. They all play in orchestras and ensembles. “After they’ve been playing two to three years and we see their level of commitment, then they earn private lessons,” said Burden.

The next school year will also consolidate Trenton Music Makers at one site, which Burden said has not yet been named. Last year, the program was held at four different school sites.

Cueva said a priority of PlayUSA is working with teachers and administrators interested in taking part in the national conversation on teaching practice and how it can be moved forward. “What Trenton Music Makers and the other programs demonstrated is that they are not only providing great services through music education, but are interested in having this professional development conversation,” she said. “We look forward to having them join that work.”