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Young musicians work hard to keep arts program alive in Humboldt Park

Nidalis Burgos keeps her eye conductor during rehearsal for after-school orchestrLafayette Specialty School Humboldt Park. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

Nidalis Burgos keeps her eye on the conductor during a rehearsal for the after-school orchestra at Lafayette Specialty School in Humboldt Park. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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Updated: June 11, 2011 10:24PM

The violin isn’t pretty, but its scratched frame has been well-loved by the girl who cradles it now, and those who played it before her. Her mother calls it her daughter’s “soul mate.”

The instrument doesn’t belong to Nidalis Burgos. It is on loan from her school, where the seventh-grader packs it up each weekday to bring it home.

She practices anywhere she can — in her bedroom, in the kitchen, on her back porch so she can hear the sound reverberate off the brick apartment buildings that line the alley. Usually, she warms up with “Ode to Joy,” a fitting theme for a girl who truly seems to love playing.

“Music brings a little peace to the mind,” the 13-year-old says.

Her own frame is so tiny that she plays a violin that is three-quarters the standard size. But when she plays it, she feels big, powerful even.

That is a common feeling among the 85 students who play in the after-school string orchestras at the Lafayette Specialty School, a public school in Humboldt Park, where more than 90 percent of the students come from poverty.

“They live in one of the wealthiest cities and wealthiest nations in the world, and some of these students have barely anything,” principal Trisha Shrode says. “Some of them don’t have clean clothes. They don’t have items for school.”

Here, a music program is not just a music program. For many students, it is a way out of the neighborhood, to a better high school and, in some cases, a better life.

These are difficult times for arts programs in schools nationwide. At Lafayette, Shrode and her staff have had their own share of budget pain.

The nonprofit Merit School of Music, which started Lafayette’s after-school orchestra program a decade ago, notified Shrode recently that it would have to cut its financial support, from covering about 70 percent of the annual cost to covering 60 percent. Next year, the school will be responsible for about $46,000, which partly covers pay for teachers and instrument upkeep and replacement. That’s a more than $10,000 increase in cost to the school.

And there may be more cuts for the next school year.

A lot of principals have resigned themselves to the constant struggle their arts programs face.

But Shrode has decided to try something different, something creative.

Lafayette had always had bake sales and sold concert tickets, CDs and T-shirts to raise money for the program. But what if they upped the ante? What if they and their students could get private donors — and even neighborhood residents — to give enough money to make the program self-sustaining?

“We have to draw on resources that schools have otherwise ignored,” Shrode insists.

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At 3 p.m. each school day, orchestra students head to a large classroom for practice.

At first, the room is the very definition of cacophony with its mix of stringed instruments being tuned and the rowdiness of students coming down from the dramas of the day.

Then Arturs Weible, the school’s music teacher, stands before them, his voice booming orders to sit down and settle in. He is one of four instructors hired by Merit to run the after-school orchestras and to lead small group tutorials; his students range from third- to eighth-graders.

Though not all are friends, he says, “they all get that we’re part of a group,” something that rarely happens during the school day.

“It’s at that after-school part of the day,” he says, “where the kids all come together and really make a wonderful experience.”

When he begins conducting, discord slowly turns to harmony.

“Ooooooohhhh!” he says loudly, smiling or even hopping up and down when he likes something his students play together.

“I live for that,” Weible says. “THAT is the joy in teaching right there.”

His enthusiasm for the music is clearly infectious with his students. When he is around, they’re more likely to sit up a bit straighter and to keep each other in check.

“Nobody works harder than Mr. Weible,” says Nidalis.

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Leaders at the Merit School of Music have been so impressed with Weible’s young musicians that they invited students fto play at Merit’s spring fundraiser, an event attended by wealthy donors.

For the Lafayette students, all that matters is that there is enough money so they can keep playing, as they did in May at a Merit festival at Orchestra Hall.

“When the lights are shining, they do their best,” Weible said.

Nidalis was among those who played at the concert. And when they finished their three songs, all of them proudly took a bow.

“We rock!” Nidalis shouted, as she walked backstage and out of the auditorium, the sound of applause and whistles still echoing behind her. AP

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