Alameda’s Bay Area Music Program teaches kids listening, mutual respect
By Lou Fancher
Lorrie Murray grew up in Connecticut playing sports, creating visual art, hearing but paying minimal attention to the pop and classic rock her parents listened to and singing for only one year in the school choir during fourth grade. The Alameda resident did not become a multi-instrumentalist or composer like her husband, Dren McDonald, and never formally studied music, as has her daughter, Ella, 20, and son, Maddox, 17.
Murray never formed a rock band, although she said in a recent interview, “I was a sideshow freak for a rock band called Idiot Flesh and was their fire-eater and torch swinger. And I’ve sung random backup vocals. Oh, and I was a bouncer at Merchant’s Saloon in Oakland.” Despite this unlikely background, while working as a graphic designer and art director, Murray became a music concert promoter and tour manager, serving in the industry for 25 years, primarily for the art rock band The Residents.
It was while watching a “60 Minutes” broadcast in 2010 about Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel, the Youth Orchestra LA and El Sistema USA, a music education program founded in the 1970s in Venezuela, that a light bulb lit up in her head. Murray’s children were students at Alameda’s former Washington Elementary School, an underperforming school that in 2013 was revamped and became Maya Lin School, an arts magnet elementary school in the Alameda Unified School District.
She suddenly realized that during all the years touring in the music industry, “everywhere I’ve ever gone and from every person, I heard stories about how music opened up a window for them. It’s where they found their tribe. Here in the East Bay, life was all about families and kids, but music was missing. I started wondering if an after-school music program could build community.”
Her wondering led to planning, and in 2014 the Bay Area Music Project (BAMP) was born. The initial project launched at Maya Lin School served the socioeconomically and culturally diverse student population on campus with free or low-cost, high-quality music instruction, instruments and music supplies, snacks and process-over-product social, emotional and academic support.
In 2023, the program (bayareamusicproject.org) operates five days a week and includes students at Alameda’s Maya Lin, Wood Middle and Encinal Junior & Senior High schools and Oakland’s middle and high school students at Life Academy High School. Opportunities in addition to one-on-one instruction include orchestra, chamber ensemble, choir, electronic music composition and production, field trips and visits from high-profile artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Black Violin, The Amani Children’s Choir of Uganda and others. The program’s funding streams include the AUSD, tuition fees, grants, corporate partnerships and individual donations.
All of the above is the basis for what Murray emphasized is BAMP’s purpose: “What we are not is an intensive drive towards a career with a symphony or orchestra. We are finding belonging for kids. There is social and emotional intentionality. We hope to gain confident young people who can express themselves in a variety of ways. My objectives of nine years ago have shifted away from simply the high-caliber musicality to whether or not we are forming fully functional humans who are confident in themselves and find connection to other people on deeper levels.”
Murray says the shift comes in response to an escalated urgency to address anxieties and isolation that students have experienced at higher levels since the pandemic began and as they returned to in-classroom learning.
“The struggles in families were heartbreaking, and the kids are permanently changed because of it. First and foremost is their disconnect from friends. Secondly, as we returned, we saw how they’re impacted at every age level. A fifth-grader might have the emotional level of a third-grader. Kindergartners who are now going into third grade — their bodies are bigger, but they don’t know games, how to line up in the hallway. There are expectations for them to behave in ways in which they are not ready to behave.”
The music program invites students to express themselves, to explore freely without the emphasis on right and wrong answers found in math, reading and other courses. For many of the students at Maya Lin, English is a second language.
“This (the music program) gives them freedom to bring their culture, their regulatory skills, their expressivity — all without language, other than the language of music,” Murray said.
The program at Maya Lin took nine years to build, and at Alameda’s Encinal Junior & Senior High, the BAMP team spent six months just asking students what they did or didn’t like about music.
“It’s worth it because you get a better result when the kids are invested,” she said. “You can’t launch a program like this without getting to know the kids and the community.”
Murray looks across today’s social and political climate and watches cultural divides widen, social media encourage snap judgement and some of the youngest elementary school students unable to focus on anything other than a screen. Some older kids are unable to stick with learning something incredibly difficult, like how to play the violin.
“If something doesn’t happen instantly — and you can’t learn it with Google alone — they get flustered. They get frustrated. As they get older, they seek to look or behave like something on TikTok or Twitter, to be an influencer on YouTube.”
She says the solutions aren’t to deny the impact of the Internet and digital world but to use them as pathways to music produced with an instrument.
“With the older kids, we go the digital route and have them compose music on digital software. At the end, you have to use a traditional instrument to apply it. We use whatever they relate to and then hand them a cello or a flute.”
In the Alameda and Oakland classrooms where BAMP operates, the same scene repeats itself: “You see their shoulders drop, they let go with laughter and visibly, physically change. They breathe differently and get into making sounds. They respond to even silly prompts. One teaching artist said to the advanced orchestra that they are fuzzy caterpillars about to fly off to a burning sun. He counted them in and they just played. Each kid just related. It wasn’t a math equation, and they produced a cacophony of amazing sound. It was freedom, openness, confidence and trust in the teacher and themselves.”
If there’s a dream Murray holds for BAMP, she’s in no rush, favoring well made plans, but says the framework would be a full, kindergarten-through-12th-grade program at all Alameda schools and kids from all over the city playing music together. The dream for her is broader, though: “That through music, students and all people learn to listen to one another and respect each other’s cultures.”