Soldiers use music to create positive social change in Baltimore

By Jonathan E. Agee
The United States Army Field Band

News story photo
Photo credit: Jonathan Agee
Staff Sgt. Katayoon Hodjati, flutist, instructs Jonah Laffiter, 5th grade flutist, during a week-long workshop in which Soldier-Musicians from The United States Army Field Band worked with OrchKids to promote positive social change through music.
BALTIMORE, Md. -- The program is called OrchKids, a year round during-and-after-school-music program that provides music education, at no cost, to underserved students in Baltimore. It was inspired by El Sistema, a Venezuelan program that for the past 40 years has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged children in the country.

Last week, Soldier-Musicians from The United States Army Field Band joined OrchKids for a five-day workshop at Lockerman Bundy Elementary School.

Staff Sgt. Katayoon Hodjati, Woodwind Quintet leader, says the program was a perfect match for her skills and the values of the Army Field Band. “I have quite a bit of teaching experience so I feel qualified to do this in addition to the performing I do as part of the Field Band,” said Hodjati. “And so this for me is putting together everything I do: the performing, the teaching, being part of the Field Band; I can roll it all into one and have an impact locally which is really different than what we do when we tour.”

Aside from having premier musicians work with the students, there are two main factors that contribute to the success of OrchKids, said Nick Skinner, OrchKids manager with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. First is using it as a vehicle for positive social change and the second is democratic access to the arts.

“I like to think of the orchestra as a metaphor for society and how you have to treat people and fit within a structure and how you have to be able to contribute positively to something -- and that’s really all these elements that are involved in making music with people,” said Skinner. “It’s just something that naturally happens. And that is where the social change comes from. Not to mention of course just being here. It started as an afterschool program to target times where there is peak trouble with youth. And we are trying to keep them engaged in something positive and that is a large part of the social change.”

The democratic side of the OrchKids program is simply allowing children to have access to musical education and the arts. According to Skinner, many of the schools are unable to provide music education due to budget cuts and lack of funding. So OrchKids fills the gap and opens doors for Baltimore City youth.

For Skinner, music education is a right not a privilege. He and his colleagues work hard to bring the students a level of music education that is inspiring. He often invites guests such as the Woodwind Quintet to work with the students and showcase all the possibilities that exist through music.

Hodjati has a talent when it comes to working with the OrchKids. She has fun, but also instructs in a way that students can relate to. While working with the elementary students, Hodjati used an example of making a chocolate chip cookie to relate what the students were creating in the musical workshop.

When you put a piece of music together you have to put all the ingredients in -- so all the accompaniment is different ingredients, Hodjati explained. We add one ingredient at a time and it doesn’t sound like much until you add the chocolate chips, which is the melody. Then you put it all together and you have a chocolate chip cookie, which is the accompaniment with the melody.

It was easily-digestible lessons like this that made the Soldier-Musicians of the Army Field Band a welcomed addition to the program.

OrchKids started in 2008 and has since grown exponentially with new students joining each year. Skinner plans to add a new grade each year and eventually work with students throughout high school. By that time, he expects more student mentors to help with the program as well.

“You take the student that knows two notes and he teaches the kid that knows one note and so on and so forth,” Skinner said. “Even though they may not be teachers, they can tell someone how to put their instrument together and how to hold it. They can teach them a couple of notes. And once we have hundreds and hundreds of kids here we are going to be relying on the older students that have been in the program for four or five years to step up and be leaders within this program.”

There is one collateral outcome of the program that does not primarily deal with music. Due to the fact that students are spending upward of three hours a day in the program, parents are becoming more involved in school than ever before. Skinner and his team have even combined some events, like “report card night,” with music to get more parents and guardians involved in the children’s education.

OrchKids has a big community concert on the night when parents come to pick up the report cards, said Skinner. Before initiating the concert, the school would typically hand out about 5 percent of the report cards to parents. Now, they hand out upward of 80 percent.

Because we have these concerts, every parent is going to come up to see their kid performing, said Skinner. So they come in and they have to get the report card, and they have to talk to their teachers because their report card is their ticket into the show!

“If we weren’t in the schools, you’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of kids that would never have had the opportunity to hear the wonderful group [Army Field Band Woodwind Quintet] that we had here today or be exposed to instruments or have the opportunity to play an instrument,” said Skinner. “Giving a child the gift to play an instrument is a gift of a lifetime. And what that can do to transform a child’s life is just a very powerful thing. And these elements are really the foundation of the program.”

For the Soldier-Musicians who participated in the week-long program, OrchKids has left a lasting impression. Hodjati plans to continue working with OrchKids on her personal time, and hopes that the workshop is the start of a continuing relationship with The United States Army Field Band.

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