A glimpse inside a youth orchestra's big harmonious family

Catherine Willis knew next to nothing about classical music. She’d been to the symphony on school field trips growing up, and she often used orchestral recordings to calm her kindergarten students after recess. That was about it. Yet, in 2007, when Willis was a retiree volunteering at the Martin Luther King branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, she staged a Black History Month performance by a pair of strings students from Champion Middle School, where she also volunteered.

“They went kicking and screaming,” Willis remembers. “They didn’t want to do it, but they did it.” The response was positive, and Willis began to wonder how many kids from underserved areas might be seeking such opportunities. A lot, it turns out.

Urban Strings, the youth orchestra Willis founded in conjunction with Friends of Art for Community Enrichment, now instructs nearly 50 local students ages 7 to 18. Willis estimates they perform about 35 times a year at libraries, malls, museums, concert halls and even government functions, like Dave Yost’s 2013 inauguration as state auditor.

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In light of such success, the Columbus Symphony honored Willis with its Music Educator Award in April. Accolades aside, those in Urban Strings’ orbit praise its familial vibe above all else. Ohio State grad Armond Wimberly, who conducts high school students in the group’s Premiere Ensemble, refers to its sessions as “a family reunion.”

At a recent Saturday morning rehearsal at Mount Vernon Avenue AME Church, parents socialized and planned events, including a golf fundraiser and a summer trip to perform in New York City. Meanwhile, three successive rehearsals played out: first the elementary-age Quarter Notes, then the middle schoolers in Half Notes and finally the Premiere Ensemble. Leading a special master class, Ohio State professor Juliet White-Smith offered lessons about artistry, technique and big-picture thinking. She told students, “You are plural, but more importantly, singular. You are an orchestra.”

In addition to the classical canon, Urban Strings performs music from traditional African American genres, from jazz to gospel to hip-hop. That variety is one reason double bassist Redd Coltrane Ingram got involved six or seven years ago, in addition to his time in private lessons, the school orchestra and the Columbus Symphony youth system.

“It was just really refreshing to be in a different symphonic environment,” says Ingram, who’s now enrolled at Columbia University and Juilliard. (He’ll give Urban Strings a campus tour during the group’s NYC trip.) He says learning a broad range of styles at a young age “really just made me an all-around better musician.”

For Powell resident Jancie Collins, president of Urban Strings’ parent association, part of the appeal was the chance for her three children to perform alongside and befriend other black students, which rarely happens at school due to the demographics of the Olentangy district. “They’ve developed friendships that they normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have,” she says, also extolling the value of their visits to museums and historically black colleges and universities.

Ingram credits Willis’ nurture for the program’s tight-knit nature. “She cares so much about every single individual in Urban Strings and every single parent,” he says. “She just puts so much effort into the families of Urban Strings, and the only way you can respond to that is by giving back to the group as well.”

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