There are three rules at CHIME, the after-school orchestra program run by the Empire State Youth Orchestra at Yates Elementary School in Schenectady.
“There are three simple rules,” 8-year-old violinist Allana Brown said, sitting at a lunch table with two of her orchestra mates last week. “Rule number one: Listen to your teacher. Rule number two…” Allana paused as she tried to remember the second rule.
“Rule number two: Respect your teacher,” said Hadi Waseem, a 9-year-old bassoonist.
“Yeah, respect your teacher and everyone and everything,” Allana jumped back in, not to be outdone. “These apply to school too.”
Rule number three?
“Work hard and try your best,” Hadi said.
Allana plays the violin, which, she said, is a long story – actually “a long story short.”
“But to make it short, I picked a piece of paper out of a hat,” she said. “That’s how my violin story begins.”
That’s how a lot of violin stories began. The program started with a 10-day pilot two years ago, housed at what was then Schenectady’s magnet school for the arts. Last school year the program went full time, starting with about 30 students and has since grown to about 60 students.
At the start, the program was for string instruments only, but this year they introduced the rest of the orchestral lineup: woodwinds, brass and percussion ensemble. And on Thursday, in front of a crowd of three or four dozen parents and siblings, the combined symphony orchestra made its debut appearance.
“It’s not easy to get all of the new instruments – the winds, the brass, percussion – to play along with the strings,” said John Connolly, CHIME program director and chief conductor, who moved from England for the job.
And district officials are looking to expand the program even more next year, earmarking $20,000 in next year’s budget to keep the program going for students as they transition to middle school and move into a second elementary school. Starting to outgrow its space at Yates, the program is also partnering with Proctors for a new home at the city’s epicenter for the arts. This time next year, the program hopes to be serving 80 students or more.
At the start of daily practices, the students split off into small instrument groups, practicing and honing their skills with one of a half dozen teacher artists employed by the youth orchestra. A handful of high school-aged volunteers also pitch in a couple times a week
“At the start, nobody really knew how to play,” said Lydia Liang, a Niskayuna High School sophomore and violinist with the youth orchestra who volunteers each week and practices with a pair of twin brothers. “They’ve improved an incredible amount.”
As the small groups practice, music wafts through the maze-like basement at Yates — cellos and basses in one corner, violins in another. In the cafeteria, the newest group of student musicians — with the program for just over two weeks — tap out melodies on their hands, learning the fundamental building blocks of reading and playing music. Later in the week, some of the program’s newest members played solos of “Merry Had a Little Lamb” for their parents.
All of Schenectady’s elementary students have access to music, band and orchestra, but outside Yates those programs meet during the school day once or twice a week. By comparison, the intensive CHIME program meets for nearly three hours every day of the school week and provides students a safe and productive outlet after school hours.
“Schenectady has long embraced the importance of the arts,” said Rebecca Calos, executive director of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, which also provides private music lessons to older Schenectady students who would not otherwise afford music lessons. “It’s something we’ve recognized that with a concentration of resources, students in Schenectady will be able to compete with the best of the best in the music world.”
The students start on the instruments as early as first grade and as students move up through the ranks, the orchestra as a whole gets sharper and more talented. In Schenectady schools, the CHIME program is meant to give students access to the kinds of top-flight music instruction that families in other communities take for granted or can pay for in private lessons.
“It’s important we start them out as early as possible,” Connolly said. “We are leveling the playing field for our children… We like to think the support we give them every day after school is what they need to reach excellence.”
Yates Principal Rob Flanders said the students are learning more than just how to play an instrument. They are developing patience and creativity, teamwork and collaboration. While he said it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions about the academic performance of CHIME students compared to their counterparts, on the whole they do have better attendance and few behavioral referrals than other students.
The budding musicians have come a long way since the program started, Flanders said, recalling the program’s first day.
“Two years ago they did their first lesson; they made their own violins out of paper with strings, so it’s really cool to hear this,” Flanders said as he stood to the side of the auditorium stage and listened to a near-full orchestra. “The instruments hadn’t come in yet.”