Project STEP (String Training and Education Program)
Project STEP (String Training and Education Program) seeks to increase diversity in professional classical music by tooling students, primarily from underrepresented groups, to compete and excel in that realm. So, nearly every Saturday during the school year, Project STEP brings several dozen students, mostly Black and Latino, to Boston’s august Symphony Hall. Toting violins, violas, cellos, and double basses, these students have arrived for lessons with some of the best classical musicians in the Boston area. Throughout this extraordinary 12-year-long program, these young musicians will receive what has been called a “world-class arts learning opportunity,” one designed to change the course of these young people’s lives, while changing the classical music industry.
Project STEP identifies students with exceptional promise through an introductory program that it runs for five-year-olds from lower-income minority neighborhoods in the Boston area. Those invited into the program are quickly immersed in a structured approach that lays a solid musical foundation, while pushing students to reach for their best. During the school year, students in grades 1 through 3 receive weekly private and group lessons, taught by faculty from area conservatories. In grade 4, the students’ curriculum includes orchestral and chamber music classes, offered at Project STEP and at the New England Conservatory of Music. By high school, participants are spending 20 or more hours a week in lessons, rehearsals, and practice. In addition, each summer, all students attend music camps for up to seven weeks.
The strong community of support that the program weaves around each young musician helps students stick with the intensive regimen. By enlisting parents, alumni, and staff in this concerted effort, participants are more motivated to succeed. Project STEP also builds in opportunities for students to experience pride and accomplishment from the start, notes Executive Director Mary Jaffee. “The kids eventually get the idea that if they persevere and put in the effort every day, things start to change.”
The program has an enviable record of success. In Project STEP’s 32-year history, 100 percent of its graduates have gone on to college or conservatories, with about two-thirds pursuing orchestral or teaching careers. And, during the past 5 years, Project STEP’s students have been accepted at Harvard, Hofstra, Juilliard, Princeton, Syracuse, and Yale—many with full scholarships.
At the senior recitals, every audience member’s eyes are filled with proud tears because they know that the dedication of the entire community [raised these students’ skills] from squeaky strings to sophisticated symphonies. The challenges are great, but the rewards are far greater.Alysha Hearn mother of two Project STEP students