BY DEBORAH HASTINGS / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS SATURDAY, JUNE 29, 2013, 9:26 AM
In the Deep South, hope and help for children in need comes in the shape of violins and cellos
The Montgomery Music Project in Alabama teaches music to disadvantaged children, transporting them into a world where all that matters is the melody. And they get their own stringed instruments to take home.
MONTGOMERY MUSIC PROJECT——–The Montgomery Music Project class of 2012-2013, assembled at the Alabama city’s Trinity Presbyterian Church.
In the Deep South, in an Alabama town where the civil rights movement erupted and endured, disadvantaged children are being given hope and help, one stringed instrument at a time.
For 10-year-old Heaven Thrasher, both arrived in the form of a brand new cello, a contraption she knew nothing about.
But when the Montgomery Music Project came to her elementary school, Heaven was mesmerized by the the sweet, deep sounds emanating from an instrument nearly as tall as her.
“She just fell in love with it,” says her mother, Michelle, a disabled single mom who struggles to raise four children.
“We have very little income,” Thrasher said, and she knew she couldn’t afford music lessons.
But the beauty of the Montgomery Music Project, which is preparing for its third school year beginning this fall, is that nearly all of its students receive full scholarships. And they get their very own instruments. And they are taught by professional musicians.
Kayla Summerlin sings her heart out at the the Montgomery Music Project’s winter concert in December 2012.
Asked what she adores about the cello, Heaven replies with a child’s clarity:
“It’s big,” she says. “And I like the teachers.” A country music fan, the girl said she knew nothing about classical music.
Now her favorite song is “Ode to Joy” and she really likes composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who included it in his Ninth Symphony in 1824.
At first she thought she would play the fiddle. But she opted for the cello, she said, because “you don’t have to stand up. And it has a beautiful sound.”
The project is the brainchild of Laura Usiskin, a cellist who moved from Connecticut to Montgomery to take a fellowship with city’s symphony orchestra in 2010. After facing the requisite culture shock, she was even more surprised to find there were no opportunities for school children to learn to play music.
None of the public schools had instruments. And neither did the private schools. In a state where the Crimson Tide’s sports schedule is a blueprint for social life, music in schools is pretty much limited to marching bands, she discovered.
MONTGOMERY MUSIC PROJECT
The Montgomery Music Project’s cello section at a November 2012 practice session.
Usiskin says it only took about six months to get folks lined up who could visualize her dream — teaching low-income kids to play the violin or viola or cello. “It wasn’t like I was competing against another program, because there wasn’t anything else,” she said. “People really saw the need.”
Under the auspices of the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra, the program received donations and corporate sponsorships to fund Usiskin’s vison.
But there weren’t a lot of people in the area who could teach children to play stringed instruments. So Usiskin reached out to musicians she knew from such places as Yale University, where she is completing a doctorate’s degree in music.
Peter Povey, an effervescent Brit who received his master’s music degree from Yale and is currently working on his doctorate at Northwestern University, came on board to design summer camps for kids who have nothing to do during the brutal summer doldrums in Montgomery. He is also the program’s education director — meaning he comes up with fun curriculum that doesn’t seem like schoolwork.
First come easy-to-play songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Lightly Row.” Then comes the fun stuff — the soaring orchestral backbone of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and the foot-stomping melody of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
“It’s a very easy beat to play and the kids love it,” says Povey, a violinist whose love of music is infectious. “It sounds like Top 40 or hip hop. Something they hear on the radio. That’s where we manage to cross over and show them that this instrument is relevant.”
MONTGOMERY MUSIC PROJECT
Heaven Thrasher, 10,right, with little brother Alexander, 6, left, at the Montgomery Music Project’s 2013 spring concert at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Alabama.
Enrollment doubled from the program’s first year to 80 children in the 2012-13 school session. Summer camp begins next month.
Not all of the kids are from needy families. One of the three participating schools is a predominately white private academy. One is in a poor neighborhood where African-American children are encouraged to join. The other is in a low-to-middle class neighborhood.
In public concerts offered to Montgomery residents, “we might have somebody playing violin in a duet who is the daughter of a teen-age mother playing with the wealthy daughter or son of a lawyer or doctor,” Povey says.
And in a city that is still trying to grow from the divisiveness of the Civil Rights era — where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. presided over the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and orchestrated the Montgomery bus boycott, and where thousands marched from Selma in 1965 at the height of equal rights protests — these small bridges between races and classes are very big connections.
“I was lucky, I came from a pretty good family who could pay for private lessons,” says Povey, who attended Eton with Prince William. “In a small way, I feel like I’m doing my duty” by working with the project.
In a short two years, “the opportunities these kids have had are just incredible … and they are learning these nice lessons about discipline and learning to make music, without it being drummed into them,” he added.
ELMORE DEMOTT PHOTOGRAPHY
Kevin McFarland of the New York-based JACK Quartet leads cello practice earlier this year.
One of his favorite moments came last year, when the Montogomery Music Project was a guest performer with the city’s symphony orchestra during an outdoor concert at the state capital.
Out tromped a bunch of kids to accompany 80 professional grown-ups. Povey could read the minds of the audience from the looks on their faces, he recalled, laughing.
“Small children with stringed instruments. This is going to be terrible.”
And then, bows in hand, the children launched into “Kashmir” and all heck broke loose.
“The audience went wild,” he said. “It was like the best thing they’d ever seen.”
To Usiskin, some of the project’s most moving moments occur when she reads scholarship applications submitted by parents.
HIGH FIVE PRODUCTIONS
Five-year-old student Samuari Walker, right, learns how to hold a violin bow from teacher Beth Mason at the Montgomery Music Project’s first class in 2011.
“It’s amazing to see their stories,” she says. “Some say ‘my daughter’s father is incarcerated’ or ‘my husband left me doesn’t pay child support and I have four kids.’ I have one mother who is a fulltime student. We ask that everyone pay something because we want them to be invested in the program.”
That something can be as little as $15.
Civil rights attorney Mark Sabel is part of about 20 percent of parents who are able and more than willing to pay for their children’s participation in the project.
His eldest daughter, Ellie, 10, plays the violin. His youngest, Rosa, 8, plays the cello.
Ellie was very sick when she joined the Montgomery Music Project in 2011. She had been hospitalized three times for extreme stomach pain. Her motor skills were diminished. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong, her dad said.
“She was in rough shape,” Sabel says softly. Finally, she was diagnosed with gluten ataxia and Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by exposure to gluten. “The program had just started, and we got her into that. She was also doing physical therapy and motor training. The violin really helped.”
He and his wife now “feel phenomenally lucky,” he said. Ellie, now on a strict gluten-free diet, is doing much better.
“One thing I learned as we were going through the worst of trying to find out what her diagnosis was, is that you just can’t take things for granted,” he said.
Things as simple as seeing your daughters’ shining faces, their bows flashing, in a concert of kids.
“Watching my daughter play is just wonderful,” he says. “Watching both of our daughters play is wonderful.”