By Mat Edelson, photos by Will Kirk

Peabody Magazine | Vol. 3, No. 1 – Fall 2008

Under the eyes of the masters, the little girl makes music. Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman all stare from the wall, a corner, really, of the grade school trailer from which the haunting melody emanates. If these legends could speak—and the intensity of their faces, placed as they are in the music teacher’s “Musicians of the Month” montage, suggests that in this room at least, they can—their voices might whisper as one at the raw energy and desire 11-year-old Ebonie Pierce is breathing into her flute:

You’ve got it, child. Now run with it.

Ebonie is one of eight Baltimore City public school students at four elementary/middle schools taking part in a pilot program called Tuned-In at Peabody. The program, which just completed its first full year, offers full Peabody Preparatory scholarships to promising public school music students. Once accepted, the students receive a weekly private lesson with Preparatory faculty, the opportunity to work with accompanists, and invitations for them and their families to attend concerts and other cultural events around Baltimore.

Tuned-In was conceived and implemented by Preparatory Dean Carolee Stewart and Preparatory faculty member Dan Trahey (BM ’00) to connect with talented city kids from lower- and middle-income families who could benefit from the Preparatory’s offerings. For Trahey, the program offers musical insurance of a sort for budding artists: He notes that historically, funding for music programs within Baltimore City’s public schools has been inconsistent. “It’s so sporadic. A kid will start violin as a pre-K, then, by the time they’re in fifth grade, there’s no funding for [music],” says Trahey.

The statistics underscore Trahey’s concern. According to Larry Friend, the new Fine Arts coordinator for the Baltimore City Public School System and a key player in the implementation of Tuned-In, there are only seven high school band and three high school choral programs in the entire city school system. While overall numbers have improved—in 1998 there were only 15 elementary instrumental music programs, versus 45 today—roughly two-thirds of all city elementary/middle schools do not have music programs. Given that many students from poorer homes are forced to move often, musically inclined children can easily find themselves transferring into a school bereft of music education.

Tuned-In hopes to establish a continuity for city students, since children picked for the program as they enter sixth grade or middle school can continue under scholarship from day one until they graduate from high school if they meet the required standards. Given that private Preparatory lessons normally run more than $40 per half hour, the scholarships offer opportunities that many city families could otherwise not afford. “It’s not necessarily to prepare them for careers as musicians,” says Stewart, noting that the vast majority of the Preparatory’s 1,800 students become college majors in non-music disciplines. “It’s to give them a well-rounded musical background. Their way of learning is affected because of the way they’ve been involved in the arts.”

Tuned-In piggybacks off another established Peabody initiative, the Music Teacher Mentoring Program (MTMP). Since 1998, MTMP has put first- and second-year city classroom music teachers together with a mentor/teacher from the Preparatory. When Tuned-In was gearing up, program director Trahey asked city MTMP teachers to help pick the program’s inaugural students. For the first go-round, Trahey sought students with supportive parents who would ensure their child would practice and arrive on time for lessons at Peabody. “They have to show up. They have to work hard,” says Trahey. “I cut one child because his parents just couldn’t get their act together, which is a shame. These students are sponges. They want to be taught. They want to be pushed,” says Trahey, a tuba player who received his BM in Performance and Music Education from Peabody in 2000.

When Trahey reached out to MTMP mentee Rochelle Montagne, the second-year Hazlewood Elementary/Middle School instrumental teacher knew Ebonie and Tuned-In would be a perfect fit. Montagne had first worked with Ebonie the previous year at Hazlewood, which serves a lower- and middle-income population in the northeastern corner of the city. From the moment the two met, the young girl’s ability and motivation were impossible to ignore. “It wasn’t like I was scouting her,” says Montagne of their first meeting. “She came to me with this flute—her mother’s—that’s 10, 20 years old. She was like, ‘My mommy gave me this flute and I REALLY want to learn how to play it.’ That was my introduction to her”

Montagne soon realized Ebonie had outstanding relative pitch and a natural feel that augured promising results. She learned to read music quickly and could sense when she made a mistake in a piece and often self-correct. “She could tune herself, and when I gave her [new music] she came back the next day knowing how to play it,” says Montagne, who often burns classical CDs for Pierce. “She’ll take them home, listen to them, then come back and critique them with a vocabulary for a sixth grader that is just unheard of in my experience with sixth grade children.”

For Montagne, the chance to get Ebonie involved in Tuned-In was a continuation of her own outreach efforts. In addition to teaching beginning music to three classes of fourth graders at Hazlewood, Montagne runs the roughly 30-student band and gives individual lessons throughout the school day. She and her husband, Samuel L. Banks High School Band Director Brian Schneckenburger, also volunteer for the city’s Honors Band program, in which Ebonie is a participant. To Montagne, Peabody offered Ebonie a setting to take her game to the next level.

At the Preparatory, Pierce teams with faculty member JeeYoung Rachel Choe ( MM ’02, GPD ’03 Flute), who is pursuing her doctorate with Peabody’s Marina Piccinini. When Choe first saw Pierce, she heard “amazing talent” with some fundamental deficiencies. Each half-hour lesson tweaked the young girl’s fundamental skills; her breathing, her finger positioning, her body posture. “She fixed them all,” says Choe, who plays flute with the Mid-Atlantic Symphony. “It got easier for her to play the flute. Technically, she’s getting a more beautiful sound.”

So much so that even Ebonie’s father, Wil, was fooled. He brought Ebonie to one of her lessons, and came back later to find the door closed. “I’m hearing this sound coming from the room. I listened a little closer. I thought ‘that must be the teacher playing that portion of the solo,'” recalls Wil, a city school police officer. “Ebonie came out and I said, ‘Oh, so the teacher showed you how to play that part.’

“And she said, ‘No, Dad, that was me.'”

For Ebonie, Choe’s teaching style both contrasts with and complements the start “Miss Montagne” has given her. Whereas Montagne stops and course-corrects throughout a piece, Choe—or “Miss Rachel,” as Ebonie calls her—has Pierce run through an entire piece before offering suggestions. “She is encouraging,” says Ebonie of Choe, “but she asks me to do it better than I’ve done it before.”

Montagne then reinforces the Preparatory lessons during her one-on-ones with Ebonie on Monday mornings during school. During one such lesson late last spring, Ebonie is practicing the Gypsy Polka in B Flat, a peppy piece with runs of sixteenth notes. As Montagne taps off the beat, she implores Ebonie: “Don’t flatten your fingers out! Like Miss Rachel says, if you don’t flatten your fingers out, you’ll go faster!”

Thanks in part to the Preparatory program, Ebonie is already going plenty fast. In addition to taking part in the All-City Honor Band performance at Morgan State University, Pierce passed an audition to perform in the Maryland Music Educators Association All-State Solo Competition. On a 1 to 4 scale (1 being the best), she scored an excellent 2, with two of her fellow Hazlewood and Tuned-In classmates—alto saxophonist Timothy McGee and clarinetist Keyona Dorsey—taking home a coveted “1” score.

With initial seed funding from the national Surdna Foundation, a grant from the Henry and Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Foundation, and a gift from Lisa and Chris Smith, Dan Trahey expects to expand the program to 18 students, adding three new schools in addition to the current Tuned-In students at Hazlewood, Mt. Royal Elementary/Middle, Northeast Middle, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. Trahey’s not shy about where he’d eventually like to see Tuned-In operating: “We hope to have a representative from Tuned-In in each school [with a music program],” he says. He notes that the program will soon expand its Preparatory offerings to allow the young musicians in Tuned-In to play as an ensemble, which is vital for their musical growth.

As for Ebonie Pierce, she and her family see Tuned-In as a vehicle for getting her into the school of her dreams, the Baltimore School for the Arts. And from there, who knows?

“I tell Ebonie, ‘This can be your platform,'” says Pierce’s mother, Kendra, a computer specialist at the Naval Health Clinic who is also president of Hazlewood’s PTA. “[Ebonie] doesn’t have to be a professional music player, but she has a high school and college education to go towards and music is in everything.

“She can use this for her education. It can take her wherever she needs to go.”

Mat Edelson is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.