Primary tabs

Young Musicians Standing Tall

March 27, 2007

Well, what do you know? Here's a cheery, feel-good story from the White House that was born in Berkeley. It's about a bunch of East Bay teenage musicians who stood tall and brought them to their feet at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last Jan. 22. They were 17 of the 85 kids from the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley — one of 12 arts education programs chosen from 250 nominees across the nation — to receive the 2006 Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
But of those 12 award-winning programs, the YMP's Junior Jazzers, five musicians playing Charlie Parker's Au Privave, were the only representatives asked to perform. Additionally, in a command performance, one other YMPer, Courtney Knott, singing her arrangement of America the Beautiful and accompanying herself, brought them all to their feet at the end.

Courtney, just 15, comes from Suisun, but lives with her grandmother in Berkeley during the week so she can attend Berkeley High School and get her free lessons from YMP. That's a typical example of what's been going on for 38 years at the Young Musicians Program. It operates on a total scholarship basis exclusively for students in grades 4 through 11 from low-income families. Of all in the program, about 41 percent are African-American, 24 percent Asian, 16 percent Caucasian, 21 percent Hispanic, and 7 percent multiracial.

YMP provides everything: instrument(s), classes (there are 50 teachers), books and music, breakfast and lunch, performance clothing as needed, even transportation for graduates traveling to audition at higher education institutions. Importantly, YMP also provides tutoring by select university students to ensure that the teenagers maintain a grade point average above the 2.5 level the program requires. All this takes place in space UC Berkeley makes available in Morrison Music Building during the school year and in summer sessions.

The story gets even better. Last Wednesday at a banquet, dinner, and concert hosted by Mary Catherine Birgeneau, wife of the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, 20 of these teenagers — almost one-fourth of the YMP's student population — having achieved a perfect 4.0 grade point average, were inducted into the Chancellor's 4.0 Club. Mrs. Birgeneau gave each a handsome plaque. Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley gave them proclamation certificates from the mayors of each of the nine towns they represented, from Vallejo and Hercules south to San Ramon, and west to San Francisco.
Measuring Success, 100 Percent at a Time
If ever there were a demonstration of the powerful effect of music study on academic performance, here it is. For the past 18 years, 100 percent of YMP graduates have gone on to higher education. Some have won scholarships at Harvard, Oberlin, Eastman School of Music, UCLA, USC, Berklee College of Music, MIT, Yale, Columbia, Spelman, Cleveland Institute of Music, and the University of Michigan School of Music. From those and other such institutions they have gone on to careers in music as well as law, medicine, business, and architecture.

The concert at last Wednesday's dinner was typical of the YMP programs I've heard before. There were heartwarming, successful performances by three violinists, a very young pianist, and as the final capper, a 12-year-old flutist, Elena Pinderhughes, playing Ernest Bloch with the big, beautiful mature tone of an adult player. Kin Hang Lam of Berkeley High School had been studying violin for only one year and there he was, giving a creditable account of the Adagio from Mozart's G-Major Violin Concerto.

There was a special story about the evening's first performer, Brianna Pang of Oakland, and YMP Director Daisy Newman told it with the bubbling joy and pride of one who takes each of these kids under wing as her own child. One day after the results of the YMP admissions auditions were
announced, Pang surprised Newman by saying, "I see you took two of my students." Then Pang revealed to the astonished Newman that she, on her own, had been teaching violin and viola to fellow students at Skyline High School who had answered a notice she had put up offering free lessons. She was, in Newman's words, sharing her YMP lessons with friends back at school. That's why Newman chose Pang to be part of the group going to Washington, D.C., specifically the one to accept the Coming Up Taller Award from First Lady Laura Bush.
The Good News Bearers
There's always something inspirational and upbeat happening at YMP so that the unexpected becomes typical. The day after the awards dinner, Newman told SFCV that a YMP pianist had been seated next to a board member and they talked throughout the evening. Newman explained that the boy, who is Hispanic, had top grades and was worthy of a scholarship at any of the several preparatory schools he had applied to, but was so shy he couldn't make an impression in the interviews. After dinner, the board member told Newman that he wanted to pay the boy's tuition for four years. "We're all in tears today," Newman said.

So that’s what happens at YMP, thanks to people like Daisy Newman and the musicians who do the teaching and mentoring. Then there are people like that board member and his dedicated fellows, the private donors, and the supporting foundations. And there’s also the university, with Chancellor Birgeneau leading the way with a grant from his Discretionary Fund and the university’s in-kind help. UC Berkeley acts as the YMP’s fiscal sponsor, giving it the 501(c)(3) status that makes the critical donations tax-deductible, at http://ymp.berkeley.edu.

Except for YMP's free services and great extras, this is the kind of teaching and music learning opportunity that used to be offered in a high percentage of public schools as part of the regular curriculum. Today, it is largely confined to a few lucky communities. That's more reason to hold up YMP as an inspiration and example for other
communities, other universities.

Whenever I think of YMP, I always consider how people keep remarking regretfully that there are so few musicians representing the major ethnic and racial identities in our symphony orchestras, and hardly any African-Americans. They ask "why?" even though the explanations are readily available. The situation is slow to change. Thirty-eight years ago, Michael Senturia, then distinguishing himself as the conductor of the UC Symphony Orchestra, answered the naggings of his strong social conscience by initiating YMP to address this inequity. So can we, today.

Robert P. Commanday, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1993, and before that a conductor and lecturer at UC Berkeley.