Project STEP changes young lives through music

At Boston’s nonprofit Project STEP, inner-city children learn life-changing skills through studying classical music.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Minority students learn how to play classical instruments at Project STEP in Boston.

Sitting on the floor of the tiny choir room, the three children listen, brows wrinkled, as Emileigh Vandiver plays a series of notes on the piano.

“One, two, three, four,” Ms. Vandiver counts. “Make sure you have four beats in every measure.”  

The students scribble furiously on their sheets of paper. One girl turns hers in. Vandiver looks at the penciled-in musical notes, then returns the page. “Can you listen to what you’ve written?” Vandiver asks her. “It’s not right. But it’s so close.”

Vandiver plays four keys, slowly, and the student’s face lights up. The girl rubs her eraser across the page, fills in the blank spaces, and again hands in her work. This time, Vandiver nods in approval.

The class, one of many that take place every Saturday in the underbelly of Boston’s Symphony Hall, the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), is part of solfège – the study of music using the sol-fa syllables. It’s a standard lesson for students in Project STEP, a nonprofit classical music program headquartered in the historical building.

Like other serious music initiatives, Project STEP chooses the most promising students, who test in at kindergarten age via a two-tier assessment process. It also employs top teachers, who work closely with the students for years. But unlike other programs, STEP focuses solely on minorities who are underrepresented in the classical music profession, giving them the chance to learn both classical string instruments and critical life skills.

“When we were founded, the goal was to place the students in orchestras,” says executive director Mary Jaffee. “Now, the broader goal is to give them the opportunity to do what they want.”

The program started with seven students in 1982 after the BSO’s then-personnel manager, William Moyer, discovered how difficult it was to find musicians of color with the experience and skill necessary to earn a seat in a professional orchestra. Part of the problem was, and is, the prohibitive cost of training.

STEP, which stands for String Training and Education Program, subsidizes a large part of the teacher, orchestra, and music camp fees that are part of any comprehensive classical music-training program. Parents pay between $25 and $350 a year for courses that would normally cost as much as $8,000.

“The point was to completely remove the financial barrier,” Ms. Jaffee says.

Today, the program’s roster consists of 44 youths, all black or Latino, from first through 12th grades. If history is a guide, each of them will go on to a college or music conservatory: STEP graduates boast a 100 percent rate of acceptance at higher-education institutions. “This training is transferable,” says Jaffee, who has been with the program for about a decade. “We want our kids to have the life skills it takes to be productive, happy members of the world, their world.”

Alex Hernandez, age 15, is nothing if not productive. When he’s not in class at Dexter Southfield, a Brookline, Mass., private school where he’s an academic scholar, the ninth-grader is at crew or football practice. On Saturdays, Alex, who plays the viola, rehearses with the New England Conservatory’s award-winning Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Throughout the week, he takes music lessons as part of the STEP curriculum.

“There are those who want it, and there are those who want it more,” says Alex with a grin, quoting his Salvadoran mother. A STEP student since age 5, he has long applied the adage to his busy schedule and his life – with the program’s help. “Everything here [at STEP] is teaching you discipline,” Alex’s mother, Itsva Cerritos, says. “This program has opened doors for him.”

Success, however, takes work. The program’s core curriculum consists of thrice weekly private lessons with a STEP music teacher, chamber music practice, and orchestra practice. Music theory and solfège classes are also required, as is community service – playing for a church, school, or nursing home.

Students also write reports on famous composers, attend concerts and summer camps, and participate in “master classes,” special sessions taught by prominent musicians. At the end of each academic year, students perform a musical piece from memory for the spring recital.  

“I’ve always had a multitude of things going for me because of music,” Alex says. “It’s hard, but I make myself do it. I grow every time.”

The program can be tough on parents, too. Yvonne Brooks, a single mother whose three children were at one point all STEP students, describes the harrowing experience of going through a divorce and trying to hold down a job while shuffling kids back and forth to school, music lessons, and home.

“It was absolutely insane,” Ms. Brooks says.

But high demands yield high returns. Brooks’s eldest daughter is now a sophomore at Yale University, and her son is headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., in the fall.

Njioma Grievous, who at 15 is Brooks’s youngest child, plays second violin for the prestigious Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, with whom Njioma has traveled across Europe and played at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In April, the BPYO performed the third act of Richard Wagner’s “Siegfried” at Boston’s Symphony Hall – a first for a youth company and a powerful rendition of a complex piece of music.

“Students are encouraged to aspire to new heights, and are provided the tools to reflect, self-assess, and build on their current skills,” music education specialist Keuna Cho observed during her three-year evaluation of the program. “[T]hese results … help to explain why Project STEP’s young musicians play as beautifully as they do.”

Brooks puts it a different way: “To be able to sit back and relax and listen to one of my children – or all of my children – playing, I can reflect on the sacrifices,” she says. “It washes the pain away.”

The students’ success both at music and in life after the program serves to further Project STEP’s other goal: to make orchestras and their audiences better reflect the communities they serve. Even as the US population grows more diverse, just over 4 percent of the country’s orchestral musicians are black or Latino, according to the League of American Orchestras.

Noah Kelly, adopted from Ecuador in 2000 by an Irish-American couple, Brian and Kathi Kelly, sees STEP as a place that connects him with both his beloved violin and his culture. Of all the opportunities he’s had since starting at STEP 10 years ago, his favorite has been going to Costa Rica with the New England Conservatory’s (NEC) Youth Symphony in 2013.

“As he was playing onstage, he looked up, and he was just smiling,” his mother, who had watched the performance, recalls. Noah later told her it was the first time he had played for an audience “that looked like him.”

“I think it’s great that Project STEP gives minorities the chance to be on the big stage,” Njioma, who is African-American, says. The training, her mother adds, pushes the students incredibly hard, so that their skill can dispel any immediate stereotypes that come to mind.

For all three students – Alex, Njioma, and Noah – the effects of that training are clear even when they’re away from their instruments.

Alex dreams of becoming a history major and pursuing his passions for both ancient Rome and writing, while playing his viola on the side. Njioma, who plans to major in music psychology, can discuss the pros and cons of everyone from Brahms to Mozart to Gandolfi without batting an eye. And Noah, who hopes to enter a top arts school such as Juilliard or the New England Conservatory, waxes poetic about the virtues of rock n’ roll on the electric violin.

All three swear by Project STEP and the people behind it, insisting that their lives would not be the same without their years of struggle and triumph through the program.

The people at STEP are like “an extended family,” Alex says.

“I would not be where I am without the training that Project STEP has provided, the mentoring,” Njioma says. “It’s a cliché, but I’m so grateful.”

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