Tracking the Beat

A Tufts professor and her students investigate a music program that’s transforming lives
Kathleen Camara
“It’s just a joy to hear them,” says Kathleen Camara of the young musicians in the Boston City Music program. Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 5, 2011

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The 12 teens quickly settled themselves on stage at Cohen Auditorium and launched into a series of jazz tunes: eyes closed at times and fingers flying, they swayed and improvised their way through such standards as “How High the Moon” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” Each of the instrumentalists—horn players, guitarists, keyboard player and drummer—had a chance to shine with a solo. Then the vocalists took a turn, transforming their voices into instruments, scat singing in bebop and improvised syllables.

The performers are from Boston City Music, an afterschool and Saturday program run by Berklee College of Music for middle and high school students from underserved communities in Boston and surrounding areas, including Lawrence, Chelsea and Somerville.

Their performance at Tufts in late February was at the invitation of Kathleen Camara, an associate professor of child development in the School of Arts and Sciences. Camara and her graduate and undergraduate student research team are doing a multi-year research and evaluation project with the Berklee program, in part to discover the ways in which it supports achievement not only in music, but in the classroom and in students’ interactions with their peers.

At the same time, the research project, dubbed YouthBEAT, also offers rich opportunities for Tufts students to learn how to conduct research. They spend a good chunk of each week listening to the teens rehearse, observing their social interactions with each other and their teachers and conducting numerous interviews to learn more about the role that music is playing in their lives.

“It’s just a joy to hear them,” says Camara, whom the City Music students greeted with hugs at their concert. While Berklee has been conducting the music outreach program for 20 years, and oversees a network of 30 similar programs around the country, there has been no formal assessment of how well City Music is working—until now.

Camara’s introduction to the program, which has served some 3,000 students, came in the summer of 2005, when she dropped off her son on his first day at Berklee’s five-week summer performance program, which is attended by many of the City Music program students, along with teenagers from all over the world.

What she saw was stunning: hundreds of youngsters filled the neighborhood around Massachusetts Avenue and Boylston Street “carrying their instruments, playing their instruments, talking, breathing and making music,” she says. “I had just read a Boston Globe article that day about Boston youth and their involvement in violence, crime and drug use, and thought, ‘Why is no one writing about the involvement of these students in music?”

To learn more, Camara spoke with Berklee program staff and administrators. Three years later, in 2008, she launched the YouthBEAT research and evaluation project, now in its third year, supported by several foundations and a faculty research award from Tufts.

The City Music Program focuses on contemporary music, the kind young people actually listen to: rap, rock, jazz and rhythm and blues, Camara says. The students are given private music lessons in addition to ensemble and music theory classes. Along the way, Berklee teachers help students with writing skills—be it thank-you notes, song lyrics, poems, journals or artist statements—and eventually college applications.

“It’s Flat. Fix It.”

It’s not just the youngsters who benefit. Zara-Marie Spooner, a doctoral student in child development, has been with YouthBEAT from the beginning and says her participation is helping her understand how she might establish her own research.  “I’ve been able to see the process, from what questions to ask, to coding and analyzing data,” says Spooner, G14. “I’ve learned how to structure an interview and how to build rapport with young people.”

“I take notice of how the students are helping one another, how they interact with each other, how they socialize with each other beyond the music,” says Marie Cole, A10, who is now the project’s research coordinator. “It starts as a musical relationship, but it becomes so much more.”

David Mash, Berklee’s vice president for technology and educational outreach, says Camara’s YouthBEAT project is “helping us with an ongoing assessment of our program and helping us improve as we progress.” It’s an important component because it “ensures that we are capturing the best practices. It’s been a very successful collaboration,” he adds.

While there are several years left in the project and visits planned to Berklee City Music network sites all around the country, several themes have emerged. One is that City Music students respond positively when they are given a chance to demonstrate their strengths. “What I see is that this program is reaching young people through their passions,” says Camara. “Instead of being a program that focuses on what a youth is not able to do, City Music instead focuses on what each of these students loves to do and what he or she can do well,” she says, “and that builds self-confidence, esteem and increased competence, which can be applied to other areas of learning.”

Another theme is the development of a sense of community and the excitement of sharing a passion with others. Even though the music world is very competitive, says Camara, the youngsters develop a strong network among themselves.

“In a short time they play together, hang out together and learn from each other. When my research staff and I are in Boston in the evening we see that these youngsters form a true community,” she says. “The older students talk about this as well. They describe how each of them, coming from different racial and ethnic communities—black, Latino, Asian-American and white—all play together, work together and are friends.”

A surprising realization for Camara was that these teens don’t necessarily wither under direct feedback, but instead strive to do better because they respect their teachers, all of whom are musicians and performers.

“In many child development circles,” she says, “the idea of giving feedback to youngsters is to frame it in a positive context, to say: ‘You know, you’re making great progress, but you could work a little bit more on this.’ Most of the Berklee faculty use a more direct approach: ‘You’re flat. Fix it.’ The method works. The youngsters don’t want to disappoint their teachers or their peers in the ensembles.”

The program also emphasizes a kind of modesty and humility about being a musician. “The students learn it’s not all about them. You are trying to build your art and skills as a musician, but it’s not just about your accomplishments,” says Camara. “When they get into those ensembles, they can’t be the star; they have to work with each other and leave their egos at the door.”

For the teenagers who entertained the Tufts audience, the focus is on “learning the fundamentals” of music in order to then be able to improvise. But what they’re learning is not just about scales and rhythm. “At City Music you meet people just like you and they inspire you to work harder,” says one young student. “You surround yourself with a community.”

 

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.