Atlanta Music Project gains steam

The room at Coan Middle School seems to expand and shiver with the booming sound, as Asia Latimore moves the bow across the strings of her bass violin.

“Now what went wrong there?” asks her teacher, Katie Algarra. “You had the right fingering but the wrong string.”

Asia, 14, corrects her left hand, and as the sound improves, the Coan eighth-grader, who is not as tall as her instrument, smiles with the achievement.

Asia says she likes the bass because “you don’t have to hold it under your chin,” but there’s another reason to play the bass, a benefit that should accrue to Asia and the other children practicing their violins and cellos at Coan in this after-school program.

According to the Atlanta Music Project philosophy, intense musical training creates more confident, resilient children, better students, stronger neighborhoods and a better world, and transforming the world is Dantes Rameau’s ultimate goal.

Rameau is the executive director of the Atlanta Music Project, which gives quality instruments and daily training to inner-city children. He can quote statistics demonstrating improved test scores, elevated reading comprehension and better graduation rates among students — most of them from poor neighborhoods — who subscribe to the program.

But Asia’s smile seems argument enough.

“It is difficult for a child to be in our program and drop out of school,” Rameau said.

Having just received the biggest boost of its fledgling career, the Atlanta Music Project is gaining steam. Two years ago, Rameau, 30, a classical bassoonist with a bachelor’s degree from McGill and a master’s from Yale, started Atlanta’s program with two dozen students, one location and a knack for fundraising. Today more than 87 students participate at three sites — including Coan Middle School — with a fourth site coming on line shortly.

Participation requires only a commitment from the children that they will attend all rehearsals and performances; their parents pay for the lessons on a sliding scale, according to their ability; most pay only a fraction of the cost.

With a budget of $500,000, most of it donated by corporations and private individuals, Rameau offers a teaching program called El Sistema that was created in Venezuela and promoted by educator Gustavo Dudamel. It involves music training for five days a week, two hours each day, an “immersive” approach with a focus on ensemble performance and group learning.

(In some neighborhoods, it’s the only music instruction the children will get, while at Coan the after-school training augments the school’s new string program, under the direction of conductor Bridgette Yancy.)

This summer, the Atlanta Music Project won a $122,801 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the biggest grant in its two-year history. It will be used to create the Atlanta Music Project Academy, which will give private lessons to the top 22 players in the project and to offer them master classes, opportunities for recitals and quality instruments. More money will allow them to expand the academy program.

On top of that, Rameau is starting a choral program and has hired choral director Aisha Bowden, who, like Rameau, traveled to Venezuela to study El Sistema firsthand. Bowden just successfully completed a $20,000 Indiegogo fundraiser to kick off the choir program.

Recently Rameau, dressed casually in a Yale hoodie, watched with pride as students at the South Bend Center for Arts and Culture in Southwest Atlanta performed three short tunes for their parents, including that elementary school perennial, “Hot Cross Buns.”

The South Bend students, mostly third- and fourth-graders, had been playing their instruments for slightly less than eight weeks. After the performance, Rameau spoke about the new academy to the assembled parents.

Though the academy would mean even more time committed to the program, more than half the parents raised their hands to indicate their children might audition.

Khairiya Muhammad said her son Rasunn King, 8, has learned discipline and the ability to work with a group while playing trombone. Also, she added, he enjoys waking his little sister up in the mornings by blowing his horn.

If Rasunn is up early, it might be because he is eager to get to school and play.

“The students who are better at their instruments are also better at organizing their time, better at persistence, better at delaying gratification, better at demonstrating grit,” Rameau said. “Research is showing that these things are more indicative of future success than a test score or a grade.”

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