Changing lives with music
by Jennifer Nault
“Show me your ID,” is not the most anticipated response coming from a middle school student upon meeting his music instructor. Yet this student was likely voicing the same dubiousness shared by his peers – as they awkwardly clutched their instruments, some of them looking at musical notation for the very first time. Some instructors might be taken aback by such impudence. Not Dantes Rameau, BMus’05, who understood precisely why his credentials were required with this bunch.
“I started musical outreach with youth while I was studying at Yale,” says Rameau, the winner of this year’s James G Wright Award from the McGill Alumni Association, a prize that honours young McGill graduates who make exemplary contributions to their communities through voluntary service. “I remember this one kid asked me if I really went to Yale. He and his classmates live in a very poor district in close proximity to the university – close, but in their minds, so far away. As black, inner-city kids, the idea of someone who looks like them going to Yale is unfathomable. In our first music class, this kid walks up to me and says, ‘show me your Yale ID,’ and so I did. I had to.
“And this is why I do what I do. When I visit these kids, I think they meet me and they begin to see that anything is within their grasp.”
Born in Canada and of Haitian and Cameroonian descent, virtuoso bassoonist Dantes Rameau is the co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta Music Project, which provides intensive music education for underprivileged youth. According to the organization’s website, Rameau has raised nearly $1 million to support the initiative and increased the programming to include 150 students, 15 teaching artists and four sites.
“My interest in youth musical education ignited when I took part in the ‘Music in Schools Program’ at Yale, which encourages grad students to go out into the public schools and classrooms. People think, ‘New Haven, Connecticut, that’s a prosperous place.’ However, there are some surprisingly low-income communities very close to the campus. And the kids growing up so close to Yale are actually very far removed from the dream of actually ever going there.”
Rameau is living his dream. He splits his time between his own musical career (he has performed at both Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center) and his musical outreach project. “These two things work well together. It is this combination of factors that inspire me – achieving excellence in my own musical training, and also the desire to help with character building amongst these kids.”
He looks affable, but he expects a lot from of his students. “We [the Atlanta Music Project] are very demanding, because you really need to spend a lot of time playing an instrument to become proficient at it.” Music instruction is five days a week, for two hours a day, which might seem gruelling, but Rameau says it’s necessary to truly succeed and hit a level of excellence. “That’s what I want for these kids – to become really proficient and to tap into their innate talent through early musical intervention. Music builds confidence, and I say, the earlier, the better.”
He’s a demanding teacher, yes, but he can also be lenient – as long as his students deliver. “Some kids tell on each other for passing notes in class, or for chewing gum, but I always say as long as they can still focus on the music, it’s all right. I encourage them to use their time effectively by teaching them time management and goal setting. But if they can do all that and still chew gum, well, it’s all right.”
Rameau is a member of the inaugural class of Sistema Fellows at the New England Conservatory. As a Sistema Fellow he spent one year studying non-profit music education program management and it was during the program that he conceived and co-founded the Atlanta Music Project in 2010. His time with El Sistema, including two months in Venezuela, grounded him in teaching, performing and observing.
He observes the progress his students make with delight. “I love to see them awakening their potential for excellence. Becoming proficient at something they are talented at. With this kind of training, their musical success is guaranteed. Learning an instrument has all kinds of positive effects, character building, self-discipline, impulse control, and it is all the more valuable to underserved kids. They’re learning resilience and what I like to call good, old-fashioned grit.”
Rameau was recently selected for Ebony Magazine’s 2013 Power 100, a list of the most influential African-Americans in the U.S. that also included the likes of Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Oprah Winfrey. He sees such honours from a practical vantage point: They help influence people to get behind his cause. He’ll be coming back to Montreal on May 8 to receive the James G Wright Award.
“I’ve been given a lot of awards, but this award from McGill is really special for me,” says Rameau. “I wouldn’t be here without the people at McGill who encouraged me, especially the people in the music program, like [former dean of music] Don McLean. They helped direct me toward scholarships and other kinds of funding, which really allowed me to focus on my studies. To be recognized by McGill now – well, this is something I truly cherish and feel inspired about.
“When I got to McGill, I auditioned for the McGill Symphony, which is expected of us. What wasn’t expected was that I got accepted in my first semester! I remember that first rehearsal with the huge orchestra. It astounded me. There I was surrounded by, like, nine double bass, just to begin! I had this sweeping feeling of ‘I’m in the right place.’ Nothing had ever felt like that before. And there I was playing my bassoon – I truly felt like I was on the moon.”
That ‘on-the-moon’ feeling is something Rameau wants to pass along to the youth he instructs through the Atlanta Music Project – that, plus a measure of grit.