The Bay Area Music Program Soars at Maya Lin

It’s grown from a tiny choral program to a major musical ensemble and continues to expand.


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Photo courtesy of Bay Area Music Program

On a sunny late September Saturday at an Oakland street music festival dubbed Oakland Block Party, internationally renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma stood on a stage as singers and string musicians from Alameda’s Bay Area Music Project took their seats.

“This is the Bay Area Music Project. And what are you playing?” he asked. The kids answered in unison: “Simple Gifts.” 

“That’s what we all need in our lives,” Ma said of the 1848 Shaker song with a simple melody. After the song, he urged the student singer/musicians to do it again, holding hands, and implored the audience to sing along, too. Some joined hands, sang, and swayed to the music, while others captured the moment with cellphones — or did both. 

Afterward, Lorrie Murray, founder of the Bay Area Music Project, or BAMP, at Maya Lin Elementary School in Alameda, directed the kids off stage and embraced Ma. Murray was asked to round up musicians to play there and at a Salesforce gig with Ma just 10 days before. She said, “yes,” and then figured out how to do it.

“I can’t stand being told I can’t do something, and I’ll do anything for the kids,” she said.

A graphic artist who worked in the music industry for 17 years, Murray is a former parent and PTA president at Washington School, reinvented and renamed Maya Lin largely because of her efforts. She and other Alameda parents kept the old school from closure, determined to give underprivileged kids a quality education on the West End of Alameda.

Betsy Weiss, a former Maya Lin Title I reading/academic intervention specialist, admired Murray’s tenacity and refusal to give up on the school. “She came in when her daughter was in kindergarten. She ignored the people that told her to enroll her daughter somewhere else. She said, ‘No, I’m going to make it better.’ I think that says a lot about Lorrie,” said Weiss, now a BAMP board member.

Photo courtesy of Bay Area Music Program

After Washington became arts magnate school Maya Lin, Murray was looking for her next project. After seeing a 60 Minutes piece on rising star and new music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Gustavo Dudamel, she had an idea. “I was blown away,” she said about the TV piece, which outlined Dudamel’s rise from a Venezuelan slum, thanks to El Sistema, a philosophy of music education born in the 1970s in Venezuela, the brainchild of musician, politician, economist, and philanthropist José Antonio Abreu.

At the root of this philosophy is that music education — specifically classical music education  — can and should be used as a means of uplifting and unifying an underserved community, starting with youth. Children are afforded the opportunity to own their own instrument, take private lessons, sing in a choir, and play in an orchestra for free. At the heart of El Sistema is the orchestra, or the family and community, and the approach emphasizes early intensive ensemble participation that keeps the joy and fun of musical learning and music making ever-present.

Murray, who doesn’t play an instrument or read music, attended a seminar at Cal Performances in 2013 about El Sistema, and she was so taken with Standford Thompson’s presentation about his similar program, Play on Philly, that she decided to bring one like it to Alameda, with his encouragement. After spending eight months working on it, and with a nudge from Maya Lin Principal Judith Goodwin, Murray initiated the Alameda Music Project, a precursor to BAMP, in January 2014 as after-school music program, primarily a choir. By September 2014, there were 40 musicians who wanted to learn beginner violin, percussion, and choir.  

Murray’s first challenge then was acquiring 20 violins for the first class. A parent’s tip led to the dumpster retrieval — and ultimate revival — of 12 from the closed Academy of Alameda, and eight more violins were purchased by the Alameda Community Fund.

That program has grown from 40 kids and three faculty members the first year from a free two-day-a-week choral program to 145 musicians playing string, percussion, and woodwind instruments five days a week with 12 teachers after school. As the program has grown and matured, Murray has assembled some highly qualified and diverse faculty to teach the youngsters. The teachers enjoy working with their budding musicians, even if Murray had to twist their arms a little to join the faculty.

The artistic director is Lucca Troutman, who has been with AMP for 2½ years and serves as choir director, orchestra conductor, and theater instructor. With a master’s in composition from Mills College, Troutman has high aspirations for the program’s students. “I want to foster a deep love of their instruments. We teach them how to read music and about harmony,” she said. “I want to expose kids to global music and expand their music knowledge beyond old white men. I want kids to feel comfortable enough to take musical risks.”

Of course, that takes a while. Kindergartners through second-graders begin with an introduction to music class and an elective period during which they’re exposed to instruments, including violin, cello, guitar, saxophone, clarinet, brass, percussion, and voice, and they can audition those instruments.

Photo courtesy of Bay Area Music Program

A petite woman with pale skin and freckles, Murray has gravitas: drive and determination in the way she speaks and carries herself. Part mother hen, part general, she dons a walk-talkie on her belt as she walks the halls each weekday afternoon directing the students enrolled in BAMP from one music class to the next.

But every year for new AMP violinists begins the same: with paper instruments. Murray uses her training as a graphic artist to connect directly with the kids on the project, providing them violins made from paper. The students then decorate them.

“They learn to care for them first. Then they graduate to real violins,” Murray said, explaining that the paper violin concept is a part of the El Sistema program.

Once the paper violins are completed, Murray and staff take the brightly decorated faux instruments to the Marketplace on Park Street. They hang there each December. The Marketplace donates a percentage of purchases during the holidays to raise money for the program.

Murray, who kept the program free and didn’t take a salary until last year, began charging students a $250 tuition in 2017. “I didn’t want to do it, but my board made me do it. And they were right. There was no other way to pay for it,” she said. There are scholarships for families who can’t afford it. 

Maya Lin parent Caterina Meyers said AMP has had an enormous impact on her daughter, Milena, 9, who plays violin, started double bass this year, and is in her fourth year in the program. “It has been such a huge part of her life. She’s learned how to read music. She’s blossomed,” Meyers said. “Since she’s not tall enough, she has to use a stool to play it [the double bass]. It takes all her might to move it. It’s a confidence builder for her,” said Meyers.

Meyers, a high school biology teacher in San Francisco, admires El Sistema’s effectiveness. “It’s a very effective method. Orchestra is a metaphor for life. Everyone contributes to the outcome, love and respect for the art form, and ability to work well with others. I’m a total convert. I wish every child had access to the El Sistema program,” she said.

Studying music has helped bring Milena and her father, who plays banjo and flute, closer together, too, Meyers said. They have a music time each evening. “Sharing the music has been a huge part of their relationship. It’s brought them and the family closer together. They share something really special during that time,” she said.

Financially, Meyers said, the family couldn’t have afforded regular music lessons. “For a teacher and a gardener, the program is very affordable.”

Principal Goodwin, a pianist and composer, has been thrilled with BAMP’s impact on Maya Lin’s students. She recalled a performance from several years ago with the choir and orchestra, noting, “They created a buzz in the room that I thought was pretty amazing.”

Kids seem enamored as well. Fifth-grader Kali de Jesus, 10, who plays alto saxophone, likes the program because the artists and teachers listen to what students say. “We learn how to play with orchestra, listen to others, and sight read. Even if we mess up, they say we can do better,” he said. De Jesus said in choir they learn songs from cultures from around the world. “Right now, we’re learning a Hebrew song. It’s sad,” he said. “All the teachers are good about expressing their emotions, which helps us express our emotions.”  

After four years of hard work to establish BAMP, Murray said she still loves what she does. “I think I found what I’m good at and have something to give,” she said.

During a class in later October, second year guitar instructor Vince Mellone, who met Murray when he donated a ukulele to AMP in 2017 and couldn’t say no to her invitation, sits in the front of a class, working calmly with eight new guitarists. “We’ve been working on these three basic notes for a month now,” he said, asking the students, “How do we get better?”

“Practice,” the kids answer.

 

BAMP will have a concert Thu., Dec. 20, at Maya Lin School, 825 Taylor Ave., Alameda. The young musicians paper violins are on display at the Marketplace on Park Street through December. For more information on BAMP, go to BayAreaMusicProject.org.

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