The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 led to riots in more than 100 major U.S. cities, cities that were already far from complacent and quiet. Maya Angelou says of the period: “The cry of ‘burn, baby, burn’ was loud in the land.”
Faced with what they saw as the real possibility of a coupe d’etat, the Nixon Administration was prompted to spin off a program called the Neighborhood Youth Corps. Though it can be viewed as a purely political expedient, the Youth Corps was, nonetheless, a response to the racial and social inequities that Dr. King had spoken of again and again from the pulpit and from the stairs of city hall. Devoted, talented people turned out, responding to the call to go into the inner cities and make things right.
When posters appeared on the UC Berkeley campus announcing this initiative, Lawrence Moe, then chair of the music department, approached a young music teacher on the faculty named Michael Senturia. Moe had an idea. He wanted to offer music lessons to kids who couldn’t afford them. Senturia was about to leave on sabbatical, but he signed on. That summer, 30 kids were recruited from Oakland, from Richmond, from areas that in that period were known, simply and bluntly, as “The Ghetto.” There are photos from those early days that show kids with Afros playing the clarinet, the flute, the oboe, the saxophone. And after its first euphoric summer, the program was declared an unqualified, resounding success.
Meanwhile, the riots in Watts, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Hunters Point that were expected to tear the fabric of the nation asunder had, it turned out, only torn a few seams. This was good news for Nixon (whose impeachment was still six years away), but bad news for the Young Musicians Program. They weren’t going to get funded again—at least not by the federal government.
Howls of disappointment and outrage, from students and faculty alike, led to a meeting. One of the graduate students who was a key player in the Young Musicians Program that first year, Javier Castillo, met with Ed Feeder, the budget officer for the College of Arts and Sciences at UC. “Javier simply refused to let the program die,” Michael Senturia recalled when I spoke to him recently about YMP’s inception.
As a result of Castillo and Feeder’s meeting, the university stepped in with funding to support the program. This was the first year of support by the university—support which has continued, uninterrupted, for 36 years.
Melissa Campbell of Oakland was accepted into the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley in 1997, when she was 11 years old. This Sunday afternoon she will be singing at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley in YMP’s senior recital. Campbell was accepted by seven major universities and has chosen Spellman, where she will study to be an obstetrician.
Melissa is one of 140 young people that make their way down into the basement of Morrison Hall each morning, all summer long, to meet with their instructors and to attend classes in harmony, composition, and ear-training. There are jazz ensembles. There is a chorus. There are chamber groups. During the school year, instruction continues through private lessons contracted by the Young Musicians Program with teachers from the faculty.
And, as was the case in 1968, there is still no fee for students accepted into the Young Musicians Program. In an era when “free” and “education” are rarely used in the same sentence, this qualifies as some sort of miracle, but it’s a miracle that requires a lot of maintenance. Heller, Surdna, Flora, and Hewlett are just a few of the nonprofit foundations that support YMP. Among corporate donors, Starbucks is a standout: They gave $100,000 to the program a few years ago. Say what you like about Starbucks, they know how to do philanthropy.
I’ve been to a half-dozen YMP student recitals over the years, and there are always, without exception, kids that just knock your socks off. I had the notion at one time that a talent scout should partner with YMP, as it seems an obvious mother-lode for agents prospecting young talent.
I called Daisy Newman, the current director of the YMP program, and asked her what she looks for in students auditioning for the program.
“A spark,” she told me. “Some sign that this is really something they are moved to do—a special part of their lives.” And she reminded me that, although there is prodigious talent in the program, talent alone is not the point. “They learn discipline. And how to find the best that they can do. There is community here, and support, and people to look up to and emulate. Not everyone here is planning a career in music, and that’s as it should be. Music becomes part of their lives, and it teaches them about life.”
For those concerned that the cultural heritage we would like to see passed on to young people is disappearing down the swirling drain, there are plenty of new reasons to be alarmed. Despite the release of the California Arts Council’s Study a few weeks ago finding that the arts add $5.4 billion to the state’s economy, the giant sucking sound continues. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom poured a fresh bucket of cold water in last Thursday when he announced his plan to cut funding to the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, Ballet and Museum of Modern Art by 25 percent to help reduce the city’s deficit.
Perhaps there is no more telling statistic than that the California Arts Council itself has seen its funding reduced by 95 percent in recent years (the director, Barry Hessenius, is resigning this month). That is, unless we consider the statistic that California itself now rates dead last in per capita arts spending funding among the 50 states.
Yet, without seeming a Pollyanna—something I am rarely accused of—it does seem there are glints of light beneath the black waters. Certainly the Young Musicians Program is an illumination. Though it must work for funding in ways that the Pentagon never will, YMP seems to be here to stay. And why, in an environment so ungenerous to the arts, is that? Perhaps it is that people understand, even without statistics and surveys, that the arts represent what is best about us as a people. Or it may be that they recognize that kids are considerably better off with a clarinet in their hands than any number of more dangerous objects.
If the fury that Maya Angelou saw sweep across the land in the ‘60s is not the coherent, articulated force it was then, it has certainly not disappeared. What came of that fury then, and what will come of it now? Social change, when and if it occurs, is a scattershot, halting affair, often reversing itself, perhaps best understood by historians. It is in the details of our lives, and in our community, that we recognize when something meaningful has happened. Those who have dedicated themselves to working with young people know the energy and zeal that abides there, as well as the rewards young people experience when that energy is harnessed to their advantage.
The Young Musicians Program is an uncommonly good idea that found an uncommonly good home. That it endures, and prospers, must be some indication that, as many things as we get wrong, we now and then get a few of them right.
Clark Suprynowicz is a composer living in Oakland, California, and writes regularly about the arts for the Daily Planet. He has served on the faculty of the Young Musicians Program.