Project STEP: A Prelude to a Better Future

First Lady Michelle Obama presented Project STEP with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, along with a $10,000 gift, in a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 10. Chosen from a national pool of more than 350 nominations and 50 finalists, STEP is one of 12 programs across the country to receive this prestigious honor. Project STEP Executive Director Mary Jaffee and 11-year-old student Ajani Boyd traveled to the White House to accept the honor in person. Photo: Steven E. Purcell

First Lady Michelle Obama presented Project STEP with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, along with a $10,000 gift, in a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 10. Chosen from a national pool of more than 350 nominations and 50 finalists, STEP is one of 12 programs across the country to receive this prestigious honor. Project STEP Executive Director Mary Jaffee and 11-year-old student Ajani Boyd traveled to the White House to accept the honor in person. Photo: Steven E. Purcell

Boston music program offers unique opportunities for minority students through music education

By Linda A. Rapka

If anyone can attest to the life-changing power of music, it’s 19-year-old Njeri Grevious.

She went from living out of a car to studying applied math at Yale thanks to her music studies at Project STEP, a rigorous, year-round Strings Training and Education Program based in Boston. Growing up in a divorced household, sometimes living with her single mother and two younger siblings out of their car, Grevious poured herself into her music studies at Project STEP. In doing so, she found a path to success during a childhood of obstacles.
For young people like Grevious who often face limited opportunities, STEP invites black and Latino children ages 5 through 18 into a world from which they have traditionally been excluded. Students find enrichment, education, and solace by learning to play classical music by the likes of Bach and Mozart.

“Teaching classical string music provides students with skills, experiences, and habits that make life better,” says Project STEP Executive Director Mary Jaffee. “Music teaches them about preparation, commitment, reliability, time management, and attention to detail. They become astute concert-goers and citizens of the world. More than anything, Project STEP teaches the joy that comes from achievement — they work hard and achieve high. That’s a prime motivator.”

Project STEP student Njeri Grevious. Photo: Lucy Gram

Project STEP student Njeri Grevious. Photo: Lucy Gram

An academically and musically accomplished student with special strengths in mathematics, violin/viola performance and music theory, Grevious is now a freshman at Yale, mostly on scholarship, studying applied math. Her siblings have also benefited from the program, and together they have formed a trio.

Their ambitious mother, Yvonne Brooks, is credited with introducing her children to music. The family purchased an old upright piano for $400 when Njeri was 4 years old so Brooks could teach her daughter how to play. She even taught her children about music theory through an online course and homeschooled them for four years. The major turning point came when Njeri’s 5-year-old brother expressed an interest in learning to play the violin. Brooks looked into lessons for her children, but they were expensive. When a friend introduced them to Farhoud Moshfegh at Project STEP, their world changed. Moshfegh became Njeri’s violin instructor, mentor and the key to her children’s chances at an exceptional music education.

“Through Project STEP, I have become a better musician, and without the program’s education and financial support I would not be where I am today and I would not be in love with classical music,” says Grevious. “The program opened doors to experiences I would not have had otherwise. Moshfegh taught me how to play the violin well, but he also taught me about life, and how discipline is needed to become a productive member of society. I realize that whatever I do in life, I can’t stop playing music. It’s a beautiful part of being alive.”

Grevious recently founded Music Theory Haven, a tutoring program designed to provide extra help in music theory to Project STEP students and other musically talented elementary through graduate age students living in Boston and New Haven.

Prompted by concern over the historic underrepresentation of minority classical musicians, Project STEP was founded in 1982 by William Moyer, a now-retired Boston Symphony Orchestra personnel manager. As the first program of its kind, STEP’s founders assisted other organizations nationwide as they set up similar programs. As of 2012, just 5% of orchestra musicians in the United States are African-American or Latino. Project STEP’s mission is to address this imbalance by identifying talented, motivated young minority students and providing them with access to the best training available.

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs Project STEP student Ajani Boyd. Photo: Steve E. Purcell

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs Project STEP student Ajani Boyd. Photo: Steve E. Purcell

Annually, Project STEP’s 44 students receive private one-hour music lessons once a week by the finest teachers from the New England Conservatory, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston University, as well as theory and/or pitch and sight-singing solfège classes. They are provided with instruments and tickets to concerts at Boston’s prestigious concert halls, and they actively participate in chamber music ensembles and orchestras. The program’s retention rate is 98%, and 100% of the students who graduate from the program also graduate from high school and go on to college or conservatory. (By comparison, 66% of students in the Boston Public Schools system graduate from high school.)

By the time students graduate from Project STEP, they have put in more than 10,000 hours playing their instruments. The cost of the program for families is $350 annually, with up to 90% financial aid on that fee. STEP students are recruited into some of the best private high schools in and around Boston. Half go on to study at prestigious conservatories, including the Juilliard School and the New England Conservatory, and the others go on to study music and other disciplines at top-tier and Ivy League universities. Sixty percent of graduates are now professionally involved in music, including the New Haven, Oregon, Pacific, San Francisco, Minnesota, and Akron Symphony Orchestras. Others work as music teachers in Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia, North Carolina and Arizona, and several have come back to teach at Project STEP. In addition to music and the arts, alumni have successful careers in medicine, finance, education and architecture.

The system cultivated by Project STEP that makes the students so successful includes engaging the families in the experience from the start. Families bond together to step in when a parent is sick, share food in the lounge as they all wait for their children to finish classes and lessons. Like an elite sports program, they carpool, share performance clothing, and prepare meals for celebrations. The program is incomparable in its duration, intensity, and parent involvement.
For Brooks, music has been more of a lifesaver than a luxury for her children.

“It has not been easy to make ends meet and provide structure for intensive musical study for my three children,” says Brooks. “But, after long hours of practice at home, countless trips in traffic jams to Project STEP classes and performances, seeing how Njeri and her siblings have benefitted emotionally, academically and musically makes it all worth it. Music helps to heal the soul. And I am so lucky to hear my children practicing and performing beautiful music through the remarkable support of Project STEP.”

To learn more about Project STEP or to make a gift to the program, visit projectstep.org.

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