NEWPORT NEWS-One local nonprofit is using music to help students grow and engage with their communities.
Soundscapes offers music education and performance opportunities to Peninsula students from 1st grade through age 25 through free afterschool music programs held at Carver and Greenwood elementary schools, weekend and summer programs, and the Peninsula Youth Orchestra.
The nonprofit was created in 2009 after Soundscapes Director and Co-founder Anne Henry was motivated to establish Soundscapes after seeing a “60 Minutes” feature on El Sistema, a youth development and orchestra program that originated in Venezuela more than 40 years ago. She decided to build a similar program in Newport News to give students in the community the skills they need to succeed in school and become engaged citizens. Henry reached out to co-founder Rey Ramirez from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and the two continue to serve the organization as executive director and program director, respectively.
The program began with 40 first graders playing bucket drums at Carver Elementary School. By early 2020, the program was serving more than 350 children in grades one through 12 and had taught music to more than 1,400 students in total. The youngest students still start with buckets, while the oldest participants now play in a full orchestra.
In tandem with Newport News Public Schools and with support from the City of Newport News, Soundscapes continues to add interested students to its programs. The nonprofit’s second location at Greenwood Elementary was added in 2020. During the school year, students gather for a meal in the cafeteria, allowing time for social connection before engaging in two-hour music classes held every day during the week.
“The little ones usually start with one or two days a week, but by the time they’re in third or fourth grade, we have them after school for all five days of the school week,” said Carol Minter, executive director of Soundscapes. “We also have summer camps that we offer, and we added the Peninsula Youth Orchestra to our repertoire in 2020. It had been its own organization at one time, but we have now assumed management, so that’s now a program of Soundscapes.”
Minter said the once students reach an age and experience level to where the afterschool program is no longer a challenge, the students are able to advance to playing with the Peninsula Youth Orchestra. The Soundscapes teachers are paid professional musicians who are trained to work with students.
“All of our teaching artists have to be citizens, artists, teachers, and scholars; they have to meet all four of those criteria in order to be a part of the program,” said Minter.
She said the program was run virtually for 18 months during the height of the covid-19 pandemic. While student-enrollment decreased during the pandemic, Minter is hopeful that their numbers will continue to gain momentum as the community bounces back with extracurricular activities and remains healthy as a whole.
“It’s really important to us that our program is affordable and accessible,” said Minter. “Our daily afterschool programs and two of our summer camps are completely free of charge for participants. We don’t charge families, and that includes the use of instruments.”
Peninsula Youth Orchestra and its summer camp provides instruction on a sliding scale. Payment is based on the students’ household incomes and size of their families.
“Close to 40 percent of the students at Peninsula Youth Orchestra didn’t have to pay for their participation this past school year,” said Minter.
In addition to fundraisers, community supporters, and local businesses, Funding for Soundscapes is largely provided through grants. The nonprofit was recently selected to receive $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support its daily afterschool music program at Greenwood Elementary School. The funding will allow Soundscapes to grow the school’s program and provide free music education for more students at the elementary school.
Minter explained that the program lends the students more long-term proficiently than meets the eye.
“While we’re working with students on learning music and playing together in an ensemble, they’re learning all of these other critical skills that help them do well in school and help them, ultimately, to become engaged citizens,” said Minter. “We want our students to have all the skills that they need to shape whatever future they want for themselves.”
For more information, visit the Soundscapes website.