Ja'Nyla wrinkled her brow as she blew across the embouchure of the flute. “Why can’t I make a sound?” she whined, clearly becoming frustrated.
“It’s ok,” I consoled her. “It’s all about the breath. Make sure you’re blowing hard, fast air across the hole of the flute.” Ja'Nyla nodded and brought the flute to her lips again, carefully placing it below her bottom lip as I had instructed her. She took a big breath and blew hard across the flute. Nothing happened.
This July, I was fortunate to assist Dr. Jee-Hoon Krska---a Juilliard-trained classical pianist and MIT-educated engineer---with a week-long music summer camp for 74 children. Keys 2 Success serves children from Newark, aged 6 to 14, with 60% of them coming from Pennington Court, home to some of Newark’s poorest minority families. Our program was housed in a local church, where enthusiastic volunteers and I set up stations for piano, flute, and drums, and we guided kids as they explored the instruments.
My role at the camp was teaching kids aged 6 to 8 how to play the flute. As an experienced player, I was confident that I could teach these kids how to play a simple melody by themselves. Watching them struggle with their first attempts, however, reminded me how difficult I had found it to make my first sound---and I had the advantage of being a few years older than most of them at the time. Their mouths and hands were small for the full-sized flutes I had with me, and their lungs were immature for the controlled breathing they needed.
Watching my students repeatedly blow across the embouchure of the flute without much result, I got concerned that they might get frustrated and give up.
Ja'Nyla, however, was determined to succeed. “Make sure to focus your breath,” I reminded her.
Ja'Nyla nodded and this time instead of blowing one long breath across the flute, she took many small, aggressive breaths, her belly bulging and crunching with each one. Each time she exhaled, her flute gave a sharp, jarring sound. The more she blew into the flute, however, the brighter and richer the sounds became. “I did it!” Ja'Nyla said excitedly
“Good job!” I responded, impressed by how quickly she was able to make her first sound.
“Now, I’m going to go over there,” Ja'Nyla said, pointing to the fish-themed carpet, “and practice my breathing.” I watched as Ja'Nyla purposefully sat down on the carpet and took deep breaths, her tiny body shaking with each one.
After a few minutes of breathing exercises, she told me, “I want the big flute now” .
“How about you blow into the big flute, and I’ll finger the notes so we can play a song together?” Ja'Nyla agreed, and I fingered the notes to, “Happy Birthday” as she blew into the flute.
After the song was done I asked Ja'Nyla how she’d enjoyed the experience, and she responded with a big smile. “It was fun. Can we do it again? I want to play another song? Do you know how to play Old Town Road? I want to play that song.”
While I was volunteering with Keys 2 Success, my stereotypes of inner-city kids were shattered. I saw how underprivileged kids have the same desire and determination as their suburban peers. If we give these children the same kind of opportunities to produce music , they will be more likely to follow their passions and attain success in their adult lives.