On Saturday, Dec. 7, the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO) and the Trenton Youth Singers (TYS) performed a concert in Rockefeller Common Room for about 100 people. During the concert, the TYO performed music from “The Incredibles” and “The Nutcracker,” while the TYS sang songs such as “Hallelujah” and “White Winter Hymnal.”
“I thought it was so much fun,” Kirsten Keels ’21, an attendee at the event, said. “It was so exciting to see not only the kids’ faces light up but also their parents’ faces light up, just singing and have such a good time. They all were looking like they had such a genuinely good time.”
Trenton Arts @ Princeton (TAP) began in 2016, when Lou Chen ’19 approached the Pace Center for Civic Engagement about a program to make a string orchestra, run by University students, for high school students in Trenton.
According to Chen, he grew up in a community that was demographically and economically similar to Trenton. Because he was the child of two professors, he was able to afford private piano lessons, while the rest of his classmates had to practice on their own.
“Especially for string instruments, without a private instructor, you’re going to hit a barrier at some point because all the people you’ll be playing with have private teachers,” Chen said.
During his orientation at the University, Chen said he saw a disparity between students on campus and the surrounding community, which inspired him to reach out to faculty at Trenton schools to see what services the University could provide. The teachers responded that they would like more reinforcement for string instruments.
Chen came up with the idea to have students from Trenton high schools form an orchestra led by University students. The high school students would have free, private instruction from the university students.
“The biggest non-profits can’t do this because they can’t pay this many people to give private lessons and group instruction,” Chen said. “Princeton students are perfectly poised to be that resource.”
In the summer of 2016, the Pace Center approved his proposal. In October, Chen and his friends visited orchestra rehearsal at Trenton Central High School once a week to coach the violin students. In December, they hosted a workshop at Princeton, and the TYO was born.
At first, they rehearsed in a house on Greenwood Avenue, but then they moved to the Woolworth Center for Musical Studies in September 2018. At that time, the program had only six high school students and four coaches. Now there are over 20 members.
Gustavo Dudamel was Princeton University Concerts’ Artist-in-Residence for the 2018–2019 season, and his foundation supports TYO’s program.
“It was such an honor to be Princeton University Concerts' inaugural Artist-in-Residence, and to have the opportunity to engage in so many ways with the committed, curious, and diverse community there,” Dudamel wrote in an email statement to The Daily Princetonian. “One of the many highlights was the time I spent with the brilliant young musicians of the Trenton Youth Orchestra and Trenton Music Makers.”
“Music has such a power to unite us during times of division, and programs like these make important connections between the young people of Princeton, Trenton and the surrounding communities,“ Dudamel added. “When I was there conducting those children, I saw myself there among them, and it instantly took me back to my roots in El Sistema and to the ideals that made me who I have become.”
Performance Faculty Sunghae Anna Lim also became a faculty Teaching Fellow. She teaches the University instructors string pedagogy to make them better teachers.
“I’m really grateful to the University that Lou started this program several years ago and over the years they have really gotten onboard,” Lim said.
Chen affirmed that TYO has achieved many of its goals.
“Everything I dreamed of we have now,” Chen said. “In the very beginning I dreamed of moving [the program] to Princeton and having busing. We got that. I dreamed of moving to the [Lewis Center for the Arts] complex; we’re doing that next semester.”
In the spring of 2019, the Trenton Youth Singers group was created by Catherine Sweeney ’20 and James Brown-Kinsella ’19 for middle school students in Trenton.
“When I came [to Princeton], I was really shocked that despite the fact that we have so many amazing singers and so many talented musicians in the choral department, we didn’t have any avenues for teaching or any avenues to share that talent and skill with younger communities,” Sweeney said.
Brown-Kinsella also contributed to the development of the program.
“When I heard about Lou’s TYO project in my junior spring … I asked him how I could help and he was really welcoming, allowing me to hop on board with his programs and inviting me to think about what space there might be for a choral branch of TYO,” Brown-Kinsella wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
That academic year, TYS had their first concert with two students and four “teaching artists.” Today, there are 17 students in TYS.
In addition to increasing publicity, Chen has plans for enhancing the group’s music repertoire. In April, he plans to conduct Dvorak’s entire New World Symphony.
“On April 2, Benjamin Beilman is going to be making his Princeton University Concert debut in Richardson, and we’ve been asked to open for him, which I’m very stressed about,” Chen said.
Students involved in the program said that TAP has had a big impact on them and their passion for music.
“If I didn’t join TYO, I don’t think I would have continued music, because TYO makes me really, really happy about music,” said Michael Martinez, a high school senior and violinist. “I get to join with my friends and have a great time with them while we all experience the same music.”