As late afternoon decrescendoed into evening, eight students sat with violins and violas in rest position. A few received one-on-one instructions from their teacher, Tucker Fuller, while two others whispered back and forth.
“I’m working on andantino,” Micah Johnson said.
“Is that Spanish or something?” Jazmine Collins asked.
“It’s French,” Micah replied.
“I’m pretty sure it’s Italian,” Fuller said. “Let’s do allegro, how about that? Everyone in one, everyone in playing position, ready, here we go.”
Eight horsehair bows moved in unison as Make Music NOLA students performed the Suzuki piece, living out the imperative in the nonprofit organization’s name.
The organization provides free music instruction and string instruments to Orleans Parish students ages 6-18 who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
“In total, we have 585 students, and we run 55 hours of programming per week,” said Laura Patterson, the group's executive director.
The group operates four after-school strings programs at community centers. Harmony Oaks Community Center, Broadmoor Arts & Wellness Center and NORDC’s Sanchez Center and Gernon Brown Rec Center all host classes.
It also runs in-school music programs at ARISE Academy, Lafayette Academy Charter School, Mildred Osborne Charter School and Phillis Wheatley Elementary School.
The instruction is rigorous: Students skip dance or PE to play music for an hour a day, four days a week, in addition to home practice, and the curriculum is popular.
“Our classes tend to fill up,” Patterson said. “It’s an opportunity to dig into something and learn it really well. They get to play a concert at the end of the year, and for most kids, it’s something they’re really proud of, that they wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to do.”
Tristan Jones, a fourth-grader at Lusher Charter School, has been playing violin for about a year and a half. His grandmother drives him to classes at Harmony Oaks Community Center after school.
“I’ve done about three or four concerts,” said Tristan, who aspires to become an engineer. “I get a little nervous before I perform, but I just go ahead and play.”
Make Music NOLA offers eight community concerts a year. Last year, students performed with members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Marigny Opera House. This year, they’ll perform at a festival for A Studio in the Woods.
Students receive free tickets to performances at the University of New Orleans and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Make Music NOLA sponsored four students for French Wood Festival of the Performing Arts Camp in New York.
The oldest Make Music NOLA students are in high school; one double bass player was accepted to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts as a jazz studies major.
“It makes me happy that students have access to music, and they also have great teachers in the program,” said Fuller, who has a Ph.D. in composition.
As more and more school music programs lose funding, Make Music NOLA plays a critical role in providing early musical training (and the skills that accompany it, such as enhanced memory, advanced literacy and stronger academic performance) to children from underserved communities, Patterson said.
“Access to music training is in peril, especially among … populations for whom private lessons are out of reach,” Patterson said. “Over time, this gap becomes more and more pronounced, reducing the diversity of our music communities. Today, only 4 percent of American orchestra players are people of color.”
A self-described “music-for-social-change program,” Make Music NOLA launched with five students in 2011 under the name Youth Orchestra of the Lower 9th Ward. Since then, it has expanded to include locations citywide and changed its name to reflect that growth.
Though Patterson says Make Music NOLA was never intended to be a strings program, that emphasis reflected the community’s needs.
“Strings were what was available when the program was founded,” Patterson said. “As we grew, our school partners and community partners kept asking for string programs because there weren’t any available to the kids in their communities.”
Though strings players may be outnumbered in what is known as a brass band city, none of Make Music NOLA’s students seem to mind.
“Our students are proud to do something different,” Patterson said.
Asked whether he’d recommend the program to other students, Tristan had this to say: “It’s fun, and you will like it. The whole thing is fun.”
Make Music NOLA is accepting students at its Broadmoor Arts & Wellness Center location. To register or get information, call (504) 526-4250.