The door to the Orchestra classroom at Bronx Prep Middle features a picture and quote from classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven, but the sounds coming from the room are not reminiscent of anything that was written centuries ago.
Scholars who happen to pass by the corner classroom on the second floor will recognize their peers playing the melodic string solos that power Drake’s “Headlines,” the staccato cello opening that defines Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” and the tinkle of the xylophone that adds flair to Taylor Swift’s mega hit, “Shake it Off.”
The BPMS scholars in Orchestra are practicing for their annual Winter Concert. The playlist and the idea to step outside the conventional box of classical music was the idea of scholars eager to learn to play music they connect to and Orchestra teacher Joe Alvarado, who uses popular music to teach the fundamentals while slowly inspiring scholars to learn about different genres as they progress.
“I listen to the music that they suggest and use it to draw them in,” says Alvarado. “As soon as I announced what they would be playing, they got super excited and they were really motivated to work, no matter how hard it was.”
The class is filled with scholars who have been a part of orchestra for two or three years as well as complete beginners who are picking up instruments for the first time.
“The first day that we actually got to play with the bow, it sounded horrible,” says Makeya R., a seventh-grade viola player. “You never think that you are going to do something good and now we’re actually playing a song by Katy Perry,” she said.
Alvarado stopped buying sheet music years ago because “it assumes that all students are on the same level.” Instead he uses music notation software to arrange each piece which allows him to modify parts to suit the experience levels of different scholars and break down the popular songs into orchestra arrangements.
“I want all of the scholars to feel like they are a part of something, and modifying the parts is a good way to integrate the new kids,” he says.
Seventh-grade cello player Syanne M. said Mr. Alvarado’s faith in their abilities is what motivated the class to push through their challenges.
“He didn’t give up hope on us when we were all down and we didn’t think that we would make it to the concert,” she said. “He said, ‘I’m going to give you guys a chance to perform because you are really excellent students,’ and I took that to heart.”