An hour before the school bell would signal the end of Trenton Central High School’s (TCHS) day Nov. 30, around 200 eleventh and twelfth-grade music students packed the school’s auditorium for “Tigers in Trenton!”. The event involved performances by three University performing arts groups: Princeton Bhangra, Princeton Chamber Music Society, and Princeton Pianists Ensemble (PPE).
While the concert was the first of its kind performed for Trenton high schoolers, Friday’s event was the beginning of a larger outreach initiative to foster a connection between University students and the Trenton community through music.
The student spearheading this initiative is Lou Chen ’19, outreach director of the Princeton Chamber Music Society and director of the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO). Founded in 2016, TYO aims to make classical music more accessible to local high school students. Over the past two years the program has grown to include 13 University student music teachers and 15 TCHS students and alumni.
In November, Chen’s work with TYO won him the Pace Center’s Fisher Award, which celebrates “entrepreneurial spirit, zest for life, love of people, and loyalty to Princeton,” through civic engagement, according to the Pace Center.
“Trenton in general is very, very different from Princeton,” Chen said. “Musical opportunities are far fewer than in Princeton. A lot of the students are tremendously talented, but don’t have private lessons, aren’t in music groups outside of school. For most, this will be the first time they’ve heard classical music live.”
While TYO has offered free tickets to performances by Princeton University Orchestra, few of Chen’s students have been able to attend due to a lack of transportation or availability. So Chen decided to bring the music to them.
As the high school students finished up their lunch hour on Friday, the University performers tested mics, tuned strings, and rolled in keyboards. Meanwhile the high school students set up rows folding chairs, trading weekend plans and engaging in friendly banter over which instrument was squeakier: the flute or the clarinet.
Sincere McGrady, an eleventh grade pianist, acoustic guitarist, and trombonist dressed in a minion onesie sat in the front row, eager for the performance to start.
“I’m really excited for the music and dancing,” she said.
She said Friday’s performance was her first time attending a concert of this caliber.
Chen greeted his orchestra members with relentless enthusiasm. “Have you been practicing?” he asked high school junior Andy Dilone, in reference to the upcoming TYO concert.
“Something I want to make clear to them is that this is the potential of your musicianship. This is what you’re capable of if you work hard,” Chen said about Friday’s performance.
In his eighteenth year of classical music study, Chen is no stranger to hard work. In his sophomore year, when TYO was in its infancy, Chen would get up at 6:30 a.m. every Friday to attend his students’ orchestra practice in Trenton.
“The three of us other than Lou only did it for a semester, but Lou just kept going back,” Mary Kim ’19 said.
Chen imbues his students with the same work ethic and love for music every Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., when TYO rehearses on the University’s campus. According to TCHS Orchestra Director Joseph Pucciatti, TYO incentivizes students to commit to joining his orchestra mastering their instrument, saying the experience of rehearsing and taking lessons on campus is “icing on the cake.” He said his students also love travelling to Princeton.
“The kids look forward to getting out of the city and going some place. It’s almost like going to another country,” Pucciatti said.
One of Pucciatti’s best musicians, sixteen year old violinist Nayely Rivas, said she looks forward to each TYO rehearsal.
Dilone chimed in, imitating Lou’s passionate conducting: “Upbow, upbow! Staccato!”
As students settled into their seats, Lou introduced the afternoon’s performers. First, Princeton Bhangra members Neha Anil Kumar ’21, Vedika Parwari ’21, Maggie Poost ’22, and Anu Vellore ’22 previewed this year’s competition choreography in a characteristically high-energy performance.
Next, John Hoffmeyer ’19 introduced the next piece as written by none other than “the first rock star of the music scene,” 19th-century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Framing his piece in the context of the artist’s wild biography, Hoffmeyer made the piece appeal to modern, younger audiences.
“It’s about finding common links to use as bridges between stories and pieces that are sometimes two or three hundred years old,” he said.
In the broader sense, Hoffmeyer continued, it’s about accessibility.
“We are dedicated to bringing music to everyone, people who don’t always get to go to big classical concerts in Carnegie Hall, because everyone has a right to enjoy music,” he said.
Kim joined Hoffmeyer for a rendition of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 5, also called the “Spring” sonata, which was met with the students’ vigorous approbation.
“She’s my favorite violinist now,” said one high school student, Tatiana Diaz, of Kim.
“She’s what I aspire to be,” another student Collin Thompson added.
PPE, represented by Alex Chien ’20, Konstantinos Konstantinou ’22, Alicia Wang ’19, and John Hoffmeyer ’19 closed out the concert with their signature piano battle. The afternoon’s match: Beethoven versus Mozart.
“You have to pick a side. You can’t remain neutral,” Princeton Pianist Ensemble’s Music Director Alex Chien said.
Chien’s warning prompted a stir among the young musicians.
“That’s hard,” Diaz said. “I like Mozart and Beethoven.”
Thompson agreed, but qualified: “Mozart's First Sonata on violin is sweet.”
Diaz laughed. “We sound like nerds,” she said.
When the piece began, students immediately recognized the first notes of Beethoven's “Für Elise.” The piece elicited cheers from the audiences as it flowed from Beethoven's 5th symphony to Mozart's 40th symphony and back to Beethoven's piano concerto, until it concluded with a dramatic four-hands-two-pianos flourish.
Students left the concert beaming.
“It was awesome. My hands are hurting because I was clapping so much,” 15-year-old Nanet Rodriguez said.
Theater teacher Felicia Latoya Brown noticed how the concert shaped students’ general attitudes toward the University.
“I think sometimes the kids get a little nervous when they hear the term Princeton,” Brown said. “When the students are torn between ‘I have to leave so I can go home’ or ‘Can I stay and enjoy the music?’ That is the beautiful moment.”
“You don’t know how many times kids have come up to me and said ‘How can I be like you, how can I get this good?” Chen said.
In forging these relationships, the TCHS students aren’t the only ones learning. Student performers reflected on the mutually beneficial nature of collaboration.
“I always notice how appreciative [TCHS students] are whenever we play something for them,” Kim said. It’s such a contrast from performing on campus. With how steeped [University students] are in cultural things we hold our performances to ‘higher standards’ and lose a lot of the joy that comes with performance. These kids don’t have the same expectations.”
Chen agreed with Kim’s sentiments.
“You lose that when you’ve been playing music for as long as we have. Private lessons, classical music since age four, you get jaded. My students remind me to appreciate my encounters with music more,” Chen noted.
But beside the musical reinvigoration, cooperation with community partners in Trenton provides a unique opportunity for students to pop the Orange Bubble and uphold the University’s unofficial motto of “Princeton in the nation's service and the service of humanity.”
“Being on campus for a year and a half, and not really interacting with the Trenton community, something that I didn’t realize was how much I take for granted the opportunities at Princeton. It’s easy for me to forget that there’s a bigger world,” Parwari said.
On the bus ride back from Trenton, the student performers looked toward a future of increased outreach.
“I see no reason why there shouldn’t be more collaboration between music groups on campus to do things like this, and every few months have a benefit concert,” Kim said.
Chen expressed hope that “Tigers in Trenton!” will continue to help students recognize the impact their art can have on younger students who may not have access to the same resources and opportunities.
Despite his graduation in the spring, Chen is planning to continue partnering with TCHS students. He hopes to find a job in New York that will allow him to come back to Trenton every one or two weeks to continue his work with the TYO, a project which shaped both his undergraduate years and the high school musical experience of his students.
“It’s really a movement, and as with any movement, it’s not only about strength in numbers,” Chen said. “It’s about the strength in conviction in what we’re doing.”