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A Community Orchestra Takes Off

By Lawayne Childrey | Published 07 Nov 2010 10:11am | comments

A community orchestra in one of the poorest sections in Gulfport is teaching kids to play music without even enough instruments to go around. MPB’s Phoebe Judge reports.

It’s 4:30 on a Monday afternoon in early October and half a dozen children are slowly making their way into a one room cinderblock building in the community of North Gulfport. Inside Stephanie Thomas is moving desks out of the way to form a semicircle, while the kids wait to see what the lesson of day will be. This is the home of the North Gulfport Community Orchestra. The free orchestra was started earlier this year. It was the idea of 26 year old Thomas, a musician who also serves as outreach coordinator for the non the profit group, the North Gulfport Community Land Trust,

“I just had it in my heart to come back home and bring to try and bring what I knew to the children, so they can have the same opportunity that I had. I had the chance to play with so many phenomenal musical artists, and meet so many different people from around the world, and I feel like it is only right to share that.”

Thomas was raised in North Gulfport, and left to receive a degree in Music from the University of South Mississippi. North Gulfport is primarily African American; it’s also one of the city’s oldest communities. Over the yeas North Gulfport has fallen on hard times and the area is now one of the city’s poorest. Thomas said she wanted to give the children of North Gulfport an escape,

“There are plenty of dangers in this community. There are drugs and crime. It is so hard to be a kid or a teenager growing up. It was hard for me but I don’t remember it being this hard.”

The orchestra has become an instant hit in the community. Thomas now teaches two classes, one for beginners and one for advanced students, the group has come to class on this day. 13 year old Jacobi Ramsey didn’t have much experience with classical music before he started with the orchestra, but says he likes it now,

“I wanted to do it because I am an instrument person; I have pretty much been playing instruments my whole life, like when I play it just makes me feel good.”

That’s the whole point says Stephanie Thomas,

“When they come to play music I will ask them to about school and home and what not, and I can just see their demeanor improve by the end of the lesson. That whatever was wrong, that the music has helped them to express it, get it out. It serves as a passport to get out of the community, get out of the everyday.”

Christine Ball is 12 year old seventh grader, she plays the violin,

“I like it because you can express your feelings through what you play and if you are sad or happy it makes you feel like you are something.”

But the problem is there just aren’t enough instruments to go around,

“We have two violins, three viola, three violi, three celli and one upright string base.”

So Thomas says they’ve gotten good at sharing, but it means that the kids can’t take the instruments home and sometimes have to wait to practice. Thomas says it’s frustrating, but she isn’t letting it slow her down.
Many of the parents whose children are in the orchestra come to the practices. Angeline Ball, Christine Ball’s mother sits, quietly in the back of the room following along with the lesson closely. She says she loves to come and hear them play.

“Well I think it is a blessing, you know for the young children staying out of trouble, giving them something to do in the evenings. It is a real blessing. I love to hear them play.”

The North Gulfport Community Orchestra has had a few performances so far, more are planned for the future. But Thomas says what’s she really trying to do is give the children another tool to fight the things that are against them,

“Fight against the barriers of racism, or poverty of stereotypes and general ignorance. I want them to use this as another way, I want my kids to be college ready, I want them to be professional, and I want them to be successful.”

Thomas says she believes music is one of the tools that came take them in that direction.

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