Dantes Rameau isn’t your typical entrepreneur out looking to change the business world. The Carnegie Hall performing bassoonist-turned-social activist simply wants to transform Atlanta’s underserved neighborhoods one musician at a time.
While attending the Yale University School of Music, Rameau joined its “Music in Schools” initiative which, among its priorities, puts YSM students in New Haven, Conn. public schools to complement the work of full-time music teachers. He recalls that many of the inner city youth were unfazed by the sound of scattering gunfire just beyond their rehearsal space. Working with troubled kids in one of the most dangerous cities in the country impressed upon Rameau first-hand the direct impact that studying music makes on students’ focus and grades. He watched the students develop the dedication and passion to improve their own lives through music.
Rameau also couldn’t shake the impact serving the kids made on his own life. Despite his own burgeoning career as bassoonist performing in venues like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, Rameau wanted to get back into outreach and connecting with young musicians. He pursued non-profit management and music education at the Sistema Fellows Program at the New England Conservatory, and later graduated from LEAD Atlanta, a leadership development program for Atlanta’s outstanding young professionals. Although his education proved valuable for learning how to launch and manage a non-profit music outreach, he sees being a musician itself as an entrepreneurial journey. He views the intense hours, practice and refinement of one’s craft the same as pouring oneself into a business and perfecting it.
Rameau was inspired by Venezeula’s El Sistema, a program exposing kids as young as 3-years-old to instruments or choral. Many continue their musical education into their teenage years and practice nearly every day of the week. Rameau studied El Sistema’s core foundation, using it as a model to co-found the Atlanta Music Project in 2010. He currently serves as its Executive Director to provide conservatory-level music education to the Atlanta’s youth.
To date Rameau has raised over $1 million to provide intense music education to underserved youth in their own Atlanta neighborhoods. He estimates 300 students will be served by 2017. Currently, the program houses an Orchestra, Choral (or AMPlify) and AMP Academy. Students perform in concerts in venues across the city, including the Woodruff Arts Center, Spivey Hall and City Hall to standing ovations.
While Rameau has an abiding love for teaching music, he says the rigorous training is designed to build the kids’ character, and music simply serves as the vehicle to get them there. The Atlanta Music Project isn’t for the faint at heart (but is still lots of fun). To date, orchestral students meet five days per week for two hours, and choral students practice three days per week for two hours a day. The organization believes all kids are musical and declines to hold entrance auditions or require any experience. But there is a caveat.
The kids are required to make a strict commitment to attend all classes. This creates a ripple effect into the family unit. Families are encouraged to support their kids’ practice and achievements both musically and in their everyday lives. In turn, the surrounding neighborhood becomes involved in the program and invested in the kids success as more and more families join the program. Soon the neighborhoods see the choirs and ensembles as “their musicians” and take pride and ownership in the achievements happening in their own community.
Orchestral students are given an instrument like a violin, viola, flute, snare drum, bassoon, or trombone and access to Teaching Artists who are first-rate performers with a thirst for social change. Kids practice as an ensemble and learn to play and work together with a goal towards performing throughout the city at high-profile events.
Rameau prefers to call his students “Young Artists” and sees firsthand how the community response impacts their confidence. Recently playing in a private home in Buckhead, the guests took time to praise the kids’ hard work and ask about their music and future plans. He attributes the students newfound ambition and confidence to seeing the direct result of working hard and achieving success from learning an instrument. That newly discovered focus trickles into every part of their life from school to community.
Students and their parents begin to see an improvement in grades and test scores at school, as well as cooperation in working with a group. But something else happens during their musical journey. The young musicians start to embrace new possibilities for themselves and their professional future. Rameau says that when the kids first come to the program, they all want to be football players or pop stars like Beyonce. But within a year, they’re talking about becoming forensic scientists and planning to compete for scholarships at Ivy League universities. Rameau recalls one Young Artist who dreams about playing music at Harvard, while he lobbies his case for her to attend his alma mater. He comments that just a short time ago, that conversation could never have happened.
Currently, the Atlanta Music Project partners with churches, schools and rec centers to present their programs in the community. But Rameau has bigger dreams of a more sustainable future for the program. He hopes to launch an endowment one day and eventually purchase a stand alone space where kids can practice and publicly perform right in their own neighborhoods. That’s music to our ears.
Find out more about the Atlanta Music Project by visiting www.atlantamusicproject.org
Read Georgia Music’s 2011 story about Atlanta Music Project by Candice Dyer.