They come from different backgrounds, races and religions.
Some live below the poverty level. Others live in single- or two-parents households, while some are being raised by aunts, uncles, even grandparents.
More than a handful deal with the heartbreak associated with having at least one biological parent serving time behind bars.
- Alisia Jackson, founder of Pride Academy, was determined to get her kids involved with the MYO.
But for about 40 students from Pride Academy, an Indianapolis-based childcare center with three locations throughout the city, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra (MYO) is a common thread. It's an outlet that helps them forget about the stressors or hardships in their lives -- even if it's for just a few hours a week.
The violin, which they all play, erases their differences. This four-stringed instrument has become the great equalizer for these youths who mostly hail from neighborhoods where the rhythms of Jay-Z, Drake and Kanye are more prevalent than those of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
For Alisia Jackson, developing a partnership between MYO and Pride Academy was paramount.
"Last year, I went to an (MYO) program and saw all of these children playing violins, and I thought, "Oh, my children have to do this," says Jackson, who opened her first Pride location 14 years ago in the Brightwood community with 23 students. Today, Pride serves 400 youths.
"I started doing research and saw how playing the violin helps kids. By September (2012), we had 52 students started in the orchestra. I reached out to the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra, because I seek to make a difference for my children."
The difference Jackson is making -- equipping students with the tools to succeed in school and providing experiences to help them see beyond their surroundings -- dovetails nicely with the goals of MYO according to orchestra manager Ruth Wolff.
"Ultimately, our goal is for kids to graduate from high school and then go on to post-secondary education," says Wolff. "There are plenty of studies that show how playing an instrument helps kids achieve those goals."
The collaboration between MYO and Pride is just one of several such partnerships the community youth orchestra has developed over the years with local schools and organizations. Sometimes the orchestra seeks out specific partners, other times -- as in the case of Jackson's Pride Academy -- organizations seek out MYO.
"We have developed relationships strategically across the community, and it has been a great way to partner with different people," says Wolff. "It's about being where the kids are, not about making the kids always come to us. We have had an interesting array of partners, which adds to the diverse background of the children and families that we serve."
- CeCe Goff (left) and Annie Flowers (right), fourth-graders at CFI (School 84), rose $180 through a fundraiser for the Pride Academy students.
Through these partnerships, MYO is able to hold its three weekly orchestra rehearsals inside Key Learning Community, as well as smaller community lessons inside facilities like the Legacy Center at Arsenal Tech High School. MYO also has developed partnerships with local schools, including CFI (School 84 and School 2), Paramount School of Excellence, Ki Community and Broad Ripple High School, where they conduct lessons at each school.
"I want to be very clear, when we are going to the schools we are not taking jobs away from teachers or music instructors," says Wolff, adding that in some schools it has been the teachers who have requested their programming. "We are not coming in as a replacement music program. We are there as a supplemental program. We offer after-school lessons."
MYO is under the educational and community umbrella of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. These partnerships are funded through allocated funds from the Symphony as well as donations MYO receives for community outreach. In turn, MYO can offer free music lessons to students through these partnerships.
Since 1995, the youth orchestra has used music -- primarily string instruments -- to educate, encourage and provide opportunities for youths living in inner-city Indianapolis. Now, 17 years later, MYO is made up of 200 kids and 50 parents who come from different socio-economic backgrounds.
The orchestra was founded by Betty Perry, a classically-trained musician who wanted to give kids the same musical opportunities she received during her formative years in New York City. Opportunities that helped her focus and overcome the challenges she endured as a child.
- Betty Perry strums her guitar during a recent lesson with Pride Academy students at the Legacy Center.
Perry grew up in a low-income neighborhood called Fort Apache in the Bronx, N.Y. She was raised by her mother until age 9, when her grandmother became her "official guardian," says Perry. As a child, teachers took an interest in Perry and used music to help her see the world, and herself, in a different way.
Perry, who relocated to Indianapolis in the 1970s with her husband and children, knew that music education was a way to reach Indianapolis youths. So she started MYO, but added a twist to the program.
MYO requires parents or guardians to participate in the orchestra with their children -- playing an instrument, volunteering, etc. -- because it helps break down barriers when families work together and learn the same skills, says Perry.
As a young girl, Perry often felt disconnected from her family while learning to play the viola and later the violin. She says the misconceptions her family had about her and the classical music she played in city-funded orchestras throughout New York lingered well into adulthood.
She reminisced about a trip she and her mother took to an Indiana casino several years ago. While driving, Perry turned the radio dial to a station playing R&B and Motown tunes, and began to sing along.
"My mother was surprised that I knew the words to these rhythm and blues and Motown songs," says Perry, who has played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, but once had dreams of joining the popular '60s girl group The Shirelles.
By requiring families to play together in the orchestra, "'we're re-enforcing positive communication between family members," says Wolff. "Our goal is to keep the family unit strong and make that unit stronger. For us, music is a tool and an answer. We have siblings participating together. We have mentoring, where little ones help out parents who are brand new to the program."
Music has been the answer for students at Pride Academy.
Every Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m., Pride's pre-school students (ages 3-5) master the rhythms of nursery rhymes and kids songs such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," "The Wheels on the Bus" and "Up and Down" inside the Legacy Center at Tech High School.
On Thursdays from 4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m., Pride's after-school students (ages 5-11) tackle more complex material, like "Moon River," at the academy's Eastside location. This group also practices Saturday mornings with the larger MYO orchestra at Key Learning Community.
During a recent Tuesday rehearsal, more than a dozen Pride preschoolers walked with their teachers in a single-file line inside the Legacy Center, through the hallway and into a large rehearsal room. They quickly took a seat on the floor and placed their violin cases in front of them.
A few minutes later, Perry, carrying a guitar case in one hand and a paper grocery bag in the other, walked into the room. "Hi, Mrs. Perry," they all screamed in unison as Perry crossed the threshold. After several greetings, they began going through the paces of various songs, with Perry, on guitar, stopping periodically to make corrections along the way.
"What we are looking for with the younger group is whether they are holding their instruments and bows correctly," says Perry, who has taught these youngsters to treat their violins like babies, and often tells them to "love, love, love and hug, hug, hug" the instruments to teach the students how to care for them.
"The nursery rhymes help to harness their ability to understand rhythm," she says.
Music, however, isn't the only thing these youngsters learn from Perry during their weekly lessons. They also learn about patience, respect, and self-confidence.
When a child can't seem to catch on to a specific technique that Perry, or one of her assistants, is demonstrating and becomes frustrated, Perry asks them to come closer to her for an encouraging word, followed by some individualized attention, then lots of boisterous praise after they catch on to the technique.
Soon, a smile is back on their face and their confidence level is up again.
Tamera West says her daughter Cameron Dillard, 4, has grown tremendously at Pride Academy and since she started taking music lessons through MYO. She credits Jackson for having the foresight to collaborate with the youth orchestra.
- LaTiyah Radford, 10, (far left), and Kelisiah Skidmore, 8, rehearse a song during MYO lessons at Pride Academy's Eastside location.
"This is such a unique opportunity. Cameron enjoys it. It's something extra for her to do that she likes, and she likes to belong," says West, an accountant at Simon Property Group. "Since she started, her comprehension skills have improved (although she already had good comprehension skills), she's able to time things out, and her attention span is longer."
Steven Ray, 5, and Jason Brunes, 5, are paying attention more in school and at home, according to their fathers, Steven Barnett and Jason Brunes Sr., respectively.
"I was leery about the program at first, because I didn't think that it would keep Jason's attention, but he listens pretty well and his motor skills have improved," says Jason Brunes Sr.
Unlike Tuesday rehearsals, on Thursdays inside Pride's Eastside location students' frustrations don't always come from not being able to master a specific technique or learn a particular song. Sometimes, it's troubles at home or school, or maybe something entirely different.
LaTiyah and her younger sister, Malaya Radford, 8, have been attending Pride Academy's after-school program for about a year and have been a member of the MYO (through the collaboration with Pride) since the program began in September.
Their mother, Shalonda Radford, says she has seen a difference in her daughters since they started playing the violin. Radford, who moved to Indianapolis from Kentucky, is raising her daughters as a single mother.
"They are motivated to play the violin, and they have become more responsible since joining the orchestra," she says. "Sometimes my daughters remind me that they have rehearsals."
That motivation and enjoyment comes from learning a new instrument and Perry's ability to connect with children. The stickers, tattoos, ring pops and other goodies inside the grocery bag she brings with her each week also helps.
"Mrs. Perry has a gift helping kids feel good about themselves," says Lee Shields, whose nieces and nephew participate in MYO through Pride Academy.
Shields and her husband, Fred, have been raising Kelisiah, 8, Faith, 6, and Zachary, 3, since the fall of 2011, when their biological mother (Shield's sister) could no longer take care of them.
"That was devastating for them. But we're fostering an environment at home where they feel safe and secure," says Shields, who receives help raising the kids from family and friends, including Pride Academy's Alisia Jackson.
Shields says Zachary's confidence and self-esteem have grown. She attributes part of it to simple maturation but also to his involvement with MYO.
- Steven Ray, 5, a student at Pride Academy concentrates during a recent rehearsal with the MYO at the Legacy Center. Since being in the orchestra, his parents say that Steven pays more attention in school and at home.
"When Zach started the program, he was definitely more shy and introverted. He's come a long way since being in our custodial care. We're seeing things change in his personality.
"With Faith, the thing that MYO has fostered is her attention span. She used to get really frustrated doing homework and having to sit there. She doesn't do that anymore or melt down when she has five pages of homework to do," says Shields. "We have seen growth in Kelisiah's confidence and self-esteem; actually, in all of them. They love being a part of something, and they seem to really enjoy the camaraderie they get through the MYO. Kelisiah and Faith are really enjoying it."
One Thursday, Perry asked the older students -- who were sitting in chairs, backs erect, feet on the floor -- to lift their feet off the floor and raise their legs, holding them at knee level, in the air while they played a song. After a few stops and restarts, everyone nailed it.
Before Perry could rattle off another challenge, Kelisiah, one of the more vocal students on Thursdays, asked if they could try the song again, but this time while lying on their backs. Perry obliged.
"I like playing the violin because it's a way for me to learn something new," says Kelisiah, after rehearsal. "The violin is easy for me. I feel proud of myself. It's like being in a band with family."
The family environment that has been created between Pride and MYO has extended to members of MYO's full-time orchestra.
Perry says the pre-school children involved in MYO's community programs are part of MYO but are not ready to join the orchestra full time. The older kids (kindergarten through high school) become official members of MYO and are integrated into the full orchestra.
"We don't have an official program for (the younger ones)," says Perry. "They are not capable of keeping up with the older kids, but they do get to play at our concerts."
On April 21, CeCe Goff, 9, and Annie Flowers, 10, members of MYO's Orchestra C and fourth-grade students at Center For Inquiry (School 84), an MYO partnership school, hosted an event at CeCe's house to raise money to help fund the music program for Pride students. They raised $180. Wolff says the money will go toward instruments or teacher's salaries.
"We knew that (some) of these kids were struggling in life, and we knew that we wanted to help them out," says CeCe, who plays the cello. She and Annie attended a recent Tuesday rehearsal to help Perry with Pride's pre-school musicians.
"It's not where you come from, it's where you're going," says CeCe. "When we (me and Annie) both learn music together, it's a whole different world. Music is a language that we all speak. It's a universal language."
"Music relaxes your mind. It's like a heartbeat," says Annie, who plays the violin. "We want to make music fun for them. I want them to experience the privilege that I have."
Part of that privilege is performing. All students, from preschoolers to high school students and parents, perform in MYO concerts.
Pride students have been taking lessons for less than a year, but already have several performances under their belts. They've performed at the Indianapolis Artsgarden and at Hilbert Circle Theatre. They even persuaded ISO concertmaster Zach DePue to attend their debut concert in early October at the McDonald's in Broad Ripple. In return, DePue surprised them by picking up a violin and performing with MYO students.
"That was the best day, ever," says Monét Settles-Mills, 13, whose mother, GinaMarie Settles, is a teacher at Pride. Monét, who also takes private lessons with Perry, says initially she didn't believe she would have the patience or focus to play the violin, but now she thinks it's fun.
As the oldest student in the MYO-Pride program, Monet has a more concise view of the bigger picture.
"I wanted to play because it will help me get a scholarship to college," says Monét, who dreams of becoming a paleontologist or a pediatrician. She believes playing the violin has other benefits as well.
"It increases my brain. Now, there's a side for music and a side with the other stuff. I have a lot of stuff inside my brain, but I can control it because my brain has gotten bigger since I started playing the violin."
- Betty Perry, (back row, right), founder and conductor of the Metropolitain Youth Orchestra, is gathered with students from Pride Academy who participate in the music program. Perry's assistant and former MYO student, Alex Bottoms (back, left), helps with music lessons on Thursdays.
Edie Coleman, a teacher and assistant director at Pride Academy, is pleased with the lessons and skills the kids are learning through the partnership.
"It's put them above a lot of kids their age when it comes to music, and it has opened their world to the fact that there are all kinds of music out there," says Coleman. "[The orchestra] has exposed them to something that's brand new to them and it's very good for them because they see other people their age doing the same thing. The atmosphere is different for them and the environment."
For Perry, it's about so much more than music.
"We're focused on getting a hold of the kids, many who are in duress. If we're looking at the culture that the kids are around, many are in a negative environment," says Perry.
"Our partnership is to provide opportunity for the kids, and for the parents as well. There is a huge difference in the kids. Some of them are completely different kids from when they started the program in September to now."
It has also put a different spotlight on the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, says Perry.
"The ISO is saying, 'We are not who you think we are. We are here to bring healing and understanding between communities.'
"It's like wildfire with the (ISO) musicians, who want to work with the kids. We (musicians) have a gift and we're breaking down barriers with programs like this."
Jackson acknowledges that when she entered into the partnership with the MYO, the goal was to make a difference in the lives of children through music. They have accomplished that, and more.
"Since September, the children have become committed to excellence in learning to read music and play music. Their self-esteem continually has risen. Their showmanship is definitely fine-tuned. They look forward to going to rehearsals and they are more focused in the classroom," says Jackson.
"It also has allowed parents to see how gifted their children are."
- Betty Perry helps Zachary Skidmore, 3, (left) position his fingers on the violin strings as Cameron Dillard (right) looks on. Zachary and Cameron are in the 3-to-5 year old group.