Baltimore Symphony Orchestra creates after school orchestra program

OrchKids helps kids do better academically

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Marin Alsop, started OrchKids, a free after school program, in 2007 with only 30 students in a single school. More than a decade later, the program reaches 1,300 students in six schools. The program has seen its participants make some big accomplishments, including receiving scholarships to prestigious summer music programs, performing with famous musicians such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and trumpeter Wynot Marsalis, performing during halftime at a Baltimore Ravens game and winning accolades at the White House.

OrchKids offers kids a respite from troubles they often face close to home. It has become a bright spot in a city that is known for violence, including being named the city with the highest per capita murder rate in 2017 by USA Today.

Alsop decided to create the program shortly after becoming the first woman to lead a major American symphony orchestra in order to bring the city closer together. She pledged $100,000 of her own money as a match to encourage others to donate. Her contribution was part of a MacArthur “genius” grant she won a couple of years earlier.

“I’m deeply distressed that our concert halls, our stages, don’t reflect the diversity of our communities,” she tells the New York Times in an interview. “How are we going to change that landscape?”

The first school was shut down after its first year, causing Alsop to switch it to another school. OrchKids Director Nick Skinner says the program was partly inspired by El Sistema, a free Venezuela music education program, after visiting before launching OrchKids.

“From the very beginning, it was very important that we were immersed in the school, and in the community,” Skinner states.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra spends more than $1 million of its $28 million annual budget on OrchKids. Alsop plans to continue to grow the program by raising $10 million this year and growing to five and ten thousand students in five and ten years, respectively.

Alsop states that schools have benefited in many ways beyond music. Students who have joined OrchKids typically had better attendance and academic performance than their peers who weren’t participating.

“Kids need some kind of outlet,” she says. “It’s definitely needed.”

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