When violist Jessie Ahuama-Jonas was in eighth grade, something called the Talent Development Program changed her life. She continued her music education and is paying it forward now by teaching orchestra at Bear Creek Middle School in Fairburn.
Keanu Mitanga, a 16-year-old Atlanta violinist, is one of 25 students in today’s TDP. The program differs from regular school, he says, where it’s often one’s own responsibility to do well. “The ‘it takes a village’ philosophy is fully embraced.”
On Jan. 4, the TDP celebrates 20 years with an Alumni Legacy Concert. This free concert will be a fun night and a full immersion into one of Atlanta’s most meaningful arts education programs, one that has seen its students go on to prestigious schools of music, major orchestras and solo careers.
The program, established in 1993 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was the first intense training initiative for African-American and Latino students created by a major American orchestra. It started with 10 students as the “Black Talent Development Program”; it was subsequently broadened to include Latino musicians, who also are underrepresented in U.S. orchestras.
“Student musicians are able to work one-on-one with the members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” says Mark Kent, an ASO vice president. “Students graduating from the program are not just moving on to colleges and universities, but they are being given large scholarships to attend the country’s top music schools, and are ultimately making a significant impact in their communities through music.”
For many of these students, it’s a life-changing opportunity to envision a future in the arts.
“My experience in the TDP confirmed my aspirations to continue a career in music, to continue playing my viola when I was not sure if I wanted to,” says Ahuama-Jonas, who is coordinating the Alumni Legacy Concert. “When I was younger, people couldn’t make me listen to classical music. Now, it is all I listen to. The TDP proved that people with my background can play classical music — and not be ashamed about it — and succeed.”
Besides receiving hands-on training from ASO musicians, students also gain access to such world-renowned artists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and harpist Ann Hobson Pilot. They’re trained to audition for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, are offered summer camp subsidies and family education opportunities.
The degree of musical immersion, the sense of community, of family that the TDP provides is unparalleled by any other organization he’s been part of, Mitanga says. The young musician, a TDP player since age 9, has been mentored by ASO assistant concertmaster and violinist Justin Bruns for the past three years. He’s also attended such prestigious camps and festivals as Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York, Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan and Scherzando in France, often on merit scholarships.
Of his love for the violin, Mitanga says, “I love the simultaneous burning passion and quiet sophistication with which true masters play the violin.”
The Alumni Legacy Concert will bring back at least 13 TDP alumni for a night of appreciation for the program. It also will serve as an example of the careers these musical professionals take on after leaving the TDP. Many play with major orchestras and/or teach at the university level; others specialize as soloists on the orchestra circuit or continue their educations ever further.
“After students leave the TDP, their continued musical growth is something that happens out of sight and listening range for most of our families and our communities,” says Kent. “The Alumni Legacy Concert is a homecoming of sorts. It allows our current students and our community to celebrate the wonderful achievements of our TDP graduates. For the alumni involved, it is a great way to bring their talent back to Atlanta and help raise funds to support future students.”
And that should be music to Atlantans’ ears.