A number of youth classical music organizations provide opportunities for underserved communities in Memphis. With the highest participation rate to date, a summer orchestra camp connects local youth to futures in music performance -- and more.
Michelle Johnson founded Harmonic South String Orchestra only back in June but her history includes over 30 years of being a strings and orchestra educator and leading the now defunct Alcy String Orchestra. This school year Johnson will be based at Whitehaven and Middle College high schools and Havenview Middle School.
Like Harmonic South String Orchestra which targets students in South Memphis (but accepts students from all over the city and metropolitan area), Johnson started Alcy String Orchestra in South Memphis in the Alcy community.
Johnson’s own personal musical history is tied back to that community; as a third grader she was a part of a pilot string program at Alcy Elementary. Johnson had played piano for two years before joining that program.
Harmonic South String Orchestra students perform at a concert closing their summer 2016 camp at Metropolitan Baptist Church in South Memphis on June 30.
Johnson said that when she reached junior high school she decided she wanted to try band or choir instead, but her parents insisted that she stick with strings.
“(They said) ‘That’s going to pay your way through college,’” Johnson recalled. “And it did.”
Johnson’s summers before college were filled with music and academic camps, since her parents made it a priority to keep her time occupied over summer breaks. She also gave violin lessons as a senior in high school.
Johnson started Alcy String Orchestra in 1993 to give students in the neighborhood an opportunity to play in a youth orchestra like she had. The group played for dignitaries who were in Memphis, like Al Gore and Nelson Mandela.
In 2008, Johnson halted the organization to take care of her ailing mother.
The Harmonic South Strings Orchestra picks up where Johnson left off, beginning with this summer’s camp. Students from age five to 18 were separated into four levels based on their musical ability. For part of the day, the upper advanced students would help out younger and less advanced students.
For five days a week from 9am to 1pm students attended the camp, which included breakfast and lunch. Students in the target area of South Memphis had instruments provided to them. HSSO also provided transportation to the camp for neighborhood students.
Three other Shelby County Schools educators worked the summer program, along with a teacher from Starkville, Miss., two site coordinators, six high school interns, and a student volunteer.
The summer program culminated with a performance for parents and the general public on June 30th at Metropolitan Baptist Church. The evening included a cello trio with bass and a violin choir.
eventy five middle and high school students from around Memphis took part in PRIZM Ensemble's largest summer camp festival to date at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church.
There are plans for HSSO to provide programming during the upcoming school year, with transportation again provided for neighborhood students, according to Johnson. This will include fall, holiday, mid-winter, and spring concerts.
Also providing classic music instruction to underserved Memphis youth for the past five years, specifically chamber music, is PRIZM Ensemble.
Husband and wife Lecolion and Carina Nyberg Washington head up the organization with Lecolion serving as Executive Director and Carina serving as Director of Education and Artistic Programming.
Lecolion, who is originally from Texas, is trained as a bassoonist. While on sabbatical as an Associate Professor of Bassoon at the University of Memphis, he works as Director of In-School Programs at the Memphis Music Initiative.
Carina, originally from Sweden, is trained as a clarinetist. She regularly plays with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, and IRIS Orchestra, where she served as the Community Relations Manager for two seasons.
Lecolion said that PRIZM has taken the mission of the typical classical music organization and flipped it upside down. Instead of primarily focusing on concerts and performances, the focus of PRIZM is community education and outreach.
“Our concerts and performances supplement that work,” he said.
The primarily concentration of PRIZM students are middle and high school aged.
PRIZM programs have been based at Hickory Ridge Middle School for the past five years, in Orange Mound for going on three years, and this year a program will be added at De La Salle Elementary, a Catholic school in the Binghampton community. Lecolion said that the organization is in discussion with other schools.
In the Orange Mound Project there have been typically 50 kids, with 20 in the Hickory Hill site. PRIZM saw its largest ever summer music camp festival attendance with 70 students, up from a typical number of 45.
From June 6-11 at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church students 12-years-old and older with a minimum of two years of experience in their instrument in strings, woodwinds, and brass participated in the camp. Camp days were from 8:30am until 3:30pm on normal days, and until 7:30pm on concert days. The organization provided transportation to the camp to students who needed it.
There were no auditions. Students participated in a placement performance to be grouped with other students on a similar level.
Rather than rely on college and graduate students for instruction, PRIZM brought in top musicians from to work with the campers. Top performing students received the opportunity to perform with the musicians. Lecolion said the organization was mindful in bringing in a diverse faculty, which increased engagement from students.
Students in groups of three to six worked with the faculty to prepare for concerts at the end of the week. Students watched the professionals perform a concert on the first night of the camp.
“We really try to model excellence,” Lecolion said. “We do a concert the first night so that they see what it looks like when you have the best musicians in the world perform.”
Besides music, students participate in classes such as yoga, spoken word, history, and an art class where the students listen to musical selections and paint. They also learn performance etiquette.
Each student receives a little public speaking experience, starting with introducing themselves and their piece, and reflecting on it.
PRIZM is unique in that it is an unconducted chamber orchestra. The principal spots are filled by faculty and the rest are students.
The camp also had two high school student interns who assisted at performances.
“I’m always amazed at how much has happened in one week,” Lecolion said. “We feel sometimes that (the students) are underestimated. We just want to give them the opportunity to be great. And success is different for each person.”
Next year the camp will be extended to two weeks and will be seeking corporate partnerships, he said.
Support for this story was provided in part by the Memphis Music Initiative; it is part of a series highlighting the impact and importance of music on the community in neighborhoods across Memphis.