‘Trust, inclusion, imagination’: Trenton Arts at Princeton connects and inspires
On June 10, 2019, six days after he graduated from Princeton, Lou Chen had a big decision to make.
Feed his passion for politics and take a job in New York at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University? Or feed his passion for music and service in a newly created position at Princeton that would build on the work he’d started his sophomore year founding the Trenton Youth Orchestra?
“It felt like the hardest decision in the world, but in hindsight, it was actually the easiest,” said Chen, who concentrated in music and studied conducting at Princeton. “The Princeton job was a unique opportunity to continue working with a community that I had become a part of and to be challenged in the best possible way.”
Chen’s decision to take the new job of program manager for arts outreach was inspired by Los Angeles Philharmonic music director and renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s 2018-19 residency at Princeton University Concerts. Chen conducted a private performance by the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO) for Dudamel and his wife, participated in a conducting master class, and sat on a panel about El Sistema, the youth orchestra model in which Dudamel was raised in Venezuela, which has inspired similar programs worldwide.
“Maestro Dudamel’s parting words to me were, ‘Keep doing the work you’re doing.’ Hearing that, I felt like I had been infused with new energy,” Chen said. “And I have no intention of letting him down. He has leveraged his musical talent to uplift children across the world. There’s no reason we at Princeton can’t do the same.”
Through Chen’s vision, TYO has grown from six Trenton students who studied with him on Saturday mornings out of an old house in Trenton to an ensemble of 26 high-school-aged musicians who practice on campus weekly, receive private lessons with Princeton student volunteers and perform multiple times a year. (In March, the program transitioned to remote learning due to the pandemic.)
Just one year in his job, Chen already has orchestrated a miracle of his own: TYO has expanded into Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP) — an initiative that coordinates the University's co-curricular arts outreach activities in greater Trenton. A collaboration between the Department of Music, the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, TAP boasts three flagship programs for dozens of middle school and high school students — and has over 50 Princeton student volunteers:
- Saturday Morning Arts: Programming centers on the Trenton Youth Orchestra, Trenton Youth Singers, Trenton Youth Dancers and Trenton Youth Theater, with rehearsals, workshops, guest performances, and one-on-one and group instruction — all led by Princeton student volunteers.
- Collaborative projects: The Neighborhood Project, which brings Princeton University Concerts’ world-renowned musicians to Trenton’s public schools and Trenton students to PUC concerts; the Side-by-Side Concert series with joint concerts by Princeton student musicians and the Trenton Central High School Orchestra; and Tigers in Trenton, an annual showcase with performances by Princeton student arts ensembles.
- Trenton Arts Fellowship: Each Princeton student fellow serves as the leader of one of the four Saturday Morning Arts groups, supported by an alumni director, faculty fellow and Trenton teacher partner. Fellows also gather weekly to discuss issues relating to the arts, equity and education.
“Lou took the time to build the relationships before he built the program,” said Dave Brown, assistant director of the Pace Center. “He embodies the best principles of campus and community partnerships.” Chen earned the 2019 A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Award, given annually by the Pace Center, for his work with TYO.
Discovering community during the pandemic
In February, Saturday Morning Arts moved into the Lewis Arts complex. Marion Young, executive director of the Lewis Center, was thrilled to see rehearsals, lessons and guest performers spreading out over the studios and practice rooms. “It has built lasting relationships between our students and faculty and the Trenton students,” she said.
One month later, the program went virtual. “As we moved online, we felt it was important to continue making this partnership and community engagement a priority, as so much was taken away from both high school and college students with the onset of the pandemic,” Young said.
When COVID-19 sent Princeton students home, Chen said his greatest fear was that it would be impossible to keep the TAP community together. “So much of what we do relies on being physically, emotionally and creatively in sync with one another — all of which I thought would be impossible over the internet.” He was wrong.
TAP successfully transitioned to remote programming including TYO private lessons on Zoom and weekly e-newsletters and Instagram posts with lively tutorials, “home” performances and inspiring playlists — all created by the Princeton student volunteers.
During two virtual theater workshops for TCHS students co-hosted by TAP and the Princeton University Preparatory Program (PUPP), Chen had an “aha” moment as he watched the Trenton students engage with Princeton students and alumni active in the theater world: actors, directors and designers.
“The conversations that took place were energetic, capacious and emotionally authentic, especially when talk turned towards the George Floyd killing and the subsequent protests,” Chen said. “Observing these conversations, I realized that it was possible to create online community, so long as it was rooted in our core values of trust, inclusion and imagination.”
This summer, the program held a seven-week virtual camp for TYO. Cammie Lee, a member of the Class of 2022, was one of five interns, coaching violin and blogging for the TAP website. A highlight was watching two of her students come out of their shells — even on Zoom.
“Many new students who join TYO exhibit shyness at the beginning, but I remember feeling particularly conscious of how quiet these two students were,” Lee said. “It was an absolute delight seeing their growth as musicians and as individuals, as they gained more confidence and willingly participated during sectionals and became more expressive during our icebreaker activities.”
This fall, the robust online programming will continue until it’s safe to return to the Princeton campus.
Following is a timeline of moments capturing some of TAP’s on-campus and virtual programming from Dec. 2019-August 2020.
Holiday greetings from Dvořák, Vivaldi and the Incredibles
Dec. 8, 2019: 7:43 p.m., Rockefeller Common Room. On a wintry Sunday afternoon, this popular student hangout has been converted into an ad hoc performance space. Cozy armchairs and folding chairs create seating for a packed house of families of Trenton student performers, as well as Princeton students, faculty and staff, there to support Chen and the student volunteers. Strings of holiday lights adorn the Gothic casement windows.
“To see you all here tonight brings tears to my eyes,” says Wendy Heller, the Scheide Professor of Music History and chair of the Department of Music, welcoming the crowd to the annual TYO holiday concert, including the Trenton Youth Singers for the first time. “We are dedicated to making music a part of all our lives.”
Chen, his conductor’s baton in one hand and a Santa cap perched askew on his head, introduces each piece, a mix of popular and classical works. Before an arrangement of the fourth movement of Dvořák’s “New World Symphony,” he tells the audience that members of TYO are going to hear Dudamel conduct the New York Philharmonic performing the “New World” at Lincoln Center in January — and Dudamel is providing free tickets.
The concert ends with a rousing audience sing-along of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” with parents holding up their phones to record the happy crowd.
Destination: New York City
Jan. 17, 2020: 8:07 a.m., an A-1 Limousine bus. As 26 Trenton students munch on granola bars, Ruth Ochs — a 2018 graduate alumnus and lecturer in music who was awarded the Pace Center’s 2019 Community Engagement Award and helped Chen get TYO off the ground in 2016 — gives a pre-concert talk.
When Dvořák was about 50, she says, Jeannette Thurber founded a conservatory in New York City with the competitive rigor of European conservatories of the time. Thurber wanted students from diverse backgrounds. “She invited women, Blacks, the physically challenged. In 1891, she invited Dvořák, who already had a successful career in Europe — even though he was an outlier, and had come from a working-class background — his father was a butcher.”
Dvořák brought his wife and six children to America, Ochs continues. “At the conservatory, he befriended a Black singer named Harry Burleigh who sang spirituals. He began to capture the features of these spirituals — and other ‘American’ music, like folk tunes and Native American music — to create the New World Symphony, a big four-movement symphony with melodies that speak to the American spirit.”
11:36 a.m. As Dudamel steps onto the stage, the TYO students applaud and cheer loudly. During the New World Symphony, Collin Thompson, a Trenton Central High School senior and co-principal third violin of TYO, begins to move his right hand in tiny, nearly imperceptible arcs.
“When I was listening and the fourth movement began, I was so excited to hear it since I’ve played it with TYO,” said Thompson, who also plays alto sax and flute in the Trenton Central High School orchestra. “I heard some familiar parts and I started to air-bow my part. Playing great music is one thing but being able to hear people even better than you take it to another level is simply inspiring.”
1:40 p.m. After the concert, the students are ushered to the green room on one of the upper levels of Geffen Hall. One of the side doors opens and in comes an old friend: Dudamel, with his signature broad grin and wild, curly hair.
“Hello, everyone, it is so good to see you! We have something for you!” Dudamel passes out a sleek white box to every student: inside is a shiny pair of ORA headphones — newly released and the first in the world to use graphene-based composite materials for optimized listening. “Use these to listen to the details of the music,” Dudamel says. “They are made with a new kind of material, a unique experiment. How do you say, ‘Really cool!’ Please take care of your ears, they are very delicate!”
The joy of improvisation
Feb. 10, 2020: 1:28 p.m., Trenton Central High School Auditorium. Concert pianist Gabriela Montero sits down at a Steinway grand piano — on loan and delivered by Jacob’s Music in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, just for today’s visit — on the stage in the auditorium of Trenton Central High School. The following evening, she is scheduled to appear in the Princeton University Concerts series.
With her fingers poised just above the shiny keys, she asks the musicians of the TCHS Orchestra, seated at their music stands around her: “Give me a tune. Anybody?”
Someone calls out “Toxic” by Britney Spears. “OK!” Montero says, banging out the 2003 pop hit with her right hand, her fingers rapidly sashaying into a lyrical two-handed improvisation.
She invites the percussionist, “Can you do a rhythm?” Montero collides into his bongo-infused calypso with the famous first four big notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: dah, dah, dah, DAH! “I like to play classical music and make it a little funky and then when you go back and play, you hear it in a different way,” she says.
Joseph Pucciatti, who has directed the TCHS Orchestra for 30 years, takes his baton and warns her: “This one is going to stretch your imagination!” The orchestra launches into the rock ballad “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen. Montero listens carefully, her fingers beckoning the melody from the piano keys, mirroring the pizzicato of the violins, then mimicking a flourish of the brass section.
After a rousing finish, Montero thanks the students for improvising with her: “You can all have a voice, even if you don’t think you do. Use your voice.”
The next evening, as part of The Neighborhood Project, Pucciatti and several members of the TCHS Orchestra attend Montero’s concert at Princeton.
A beehive of creativity: Saturday Morning Arts in the Lewis Arts complex
Feb. 29, 2020: 9:57 a.m. In the Forum. Chen greets 55 Trenton students as they drop their backpacks, instruments and grab a breakfast treat. “Hello, happy Saturday! How was your week? Our guest performance this morning will be in the Wallace Theater!”
Richard Peng, a member of the Class of 2020 and director of a Lewis Center production of the Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music,” introduces the number the cast will perform. “The show is set in Sweden around 1890, but don’t worry, they’re not speaking in Swedish!”
Afterwards, he invites questions. The Trenton students want to know: “How long did it take to create this?” “Why did you pick this show?”
Chen asks Peng if he has any advice for the theater students in the audience. “One of the most beautiful things about making theater is the collaboration, really enjoying what you are doing and having fun, rather than ‘Get it right,’” Peng says. “The biggest thing I get out of this is that you make so many close friends with your fellow actors. It’s important to have an open heart.”
10:27 a.m. In the Lee Rehearsal Room, TYO students grab their instruments and the room fills with the familiar sound of an orchestra tuning up.
Chen leaps onto a stool on the conductor’s podium. “Let’s get to it! ‘New World’! Wait!” He steps down to help a student adjust the position of her hand on the neck of her violin, a soft pink ribbon tied around the top. Back on the podium, Chen flips the page in his score. “My advice is during the fast parts, don’t rush, during the slow parts, don’t slow down. Think about how Dudamel and the NY Phil play it.”
With baton dancing in one hand and the other hand raking through his thick bangs, Chen calls out entrance cues, inhaling deeply to emphasize key “breaths” in the music. “This is sounding really, really good. OK, let’s start at bar 36. I want to hear the cellos crunch!”
10:55 a.m. In the Roberts Dance Studio, a sea of pairs of sneakers — red, hot pink and black, navy blue, pastel blue — dash across the floor. One student has a leopard bandana tied around his head, another has her jeans rolled up above her ankles. The Princeton student ensemble the HighSteppers leads the Trenton Youth Dancers students in a routine.
Highsteppers’ assistant artistic director Jaelin Haynes, a member of the Class of 2023, instructs: “You step out and clap” — she exaggerates a step to the left — “rock your right hand across your right leg, clap, then reach out to your right as if someone’s there you’re going to tap but they’re not really there. Clap, slap, over, swipe again, circle your arms around then stomp, stomp with your arms side to side.”
The Highsteppers intersperse themselves amidst the Trenton students, and everyone jumps into the routine. There is no music, rather their bodies create the music, a loud syncopated rhythm, by slapping their hands against their thighs and stomping their feet as they thrust their arms out sharply like arms of a windmill then upside down like a scarecrow.
11:53 a.m. Sunlight spills into the Forum from the skylights above, creating diffused squares of light on the dark wood floor, where about 20 members of the Trenton Youth Singers, several Princeton student volunteers and Gabriel Crouch, the director of choral activities and a senior lecturer in music at Princeton, stand around a grand piano. Gloria Yin, a 2018 alumna and TYS director, hands out scores. “We have a new piece today, Psalm 131 from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms.’ It’s a little tricky but we can do it.”
Straightening her sheet music of Bernstein’s homage to Hebrew choral music, Yin accompanies herself on piano as she sings the melody of the prelude with a beautiful “aaaaahhhh” sound. “OK, let’s sing it warmly. Sostenuto molto. What does that word, sostenuto, mean? It means peacefully moving. Keep it going.”
12:16 p.m. Back in the Roberts Dance Studio, Sophie Blue, a member of the Class of 2021 and a Trenton Arts Fellow, leads a choreography workshop, splitting the dance students into two groups. “I’m setting a two-minute timer. OK, go!”
Blue squats down on her heels, head nodding in time to the music, her eyes flitting back and forth like watching a tennis match between the groups, her fingers snapping in time. One dancer practices a double-turn in the corner.
“Who wants to go first? Group one. I’m going to pick the song. This is called ‘Madness.’” The group shakes their collective heads. “Too slow? OK. Let’s try this: ‘HyperParadise — Flume Remix.’ It’s by Hermitude.”
Group two sits along the mirror, becoming the audience. At the end, Blue asks them, “What did we notice?” One student calls out: “It looked like it has personality!”
12:39 p.m. In one of the practice rooms in the Effron Music Building, Nick Schmeller, a member of the Class of 2021 and a violinist in the Princeton University Orchestra, leads a private lesson with Michael Martinez, who plays co-principal second violin in TYO and is a member of the TCHS Orchestra. They are working on the Adagio movement of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, which TYO was scheduled to perform at Richardson Auditorium in April and in May at TYO’s end-of-year concert — both were canceled because of the pandemic.
Schmeller says: “OK, let’s start at measure 4.” They play several measures together, then Schmeller stops, lifting his chin just slightly in order to talk. “Uh-oh, you were one eighth off. Remember, the pulse is your life. I noticed you sort of jumped the gun there,” he says, penciling in some slashes on Martinez’s score. “That’s a tricky measure. The pulse is extra important here. Let’s start again. We’re both a little bit off. You’re going to lead me. Alright, that’s good.”
From Barcelona, with love
Aug. 14, 2020: 2:12 p.m. Six squares appear on a Zoom screen. The first-place winner and two honorable mention winners of The Neighborhood Project’s “Express the Music” contest chat with pianist Gabriela Montero. Chen and Marna Seltzer, director of Princeton University Concerts, listen in. The contest invites Trenton students to attend a concert at Princeton — free tickets are provided — and create a personal response via creative writing or drawing/art-making. Four of this year’s winners responded to Montero’s Feb. 11 concert; view their winning entries online.
The video chat was Montero’s idea. She wanted to thank them.
“I’m in Barcelona, the epicenter of COVID madness,” she says. “How is everyone doing? Are you practicing?” Each student has news to share, and not all good. One student and her parents had COVID, but they’ve recovered. Another student’s 5-year-old cousin died unexpectedly in his sleep. Montero listens carefully and expresses her condolences.
Gisela Bramonte, a junior at TCHS who plays the clarinet, says: “It’s really weird not being in orchestra, not playing with people. My motivation has gone down.”
Montero nods with empathy. “You know what’s good about moments like these, when everything is out of your control? When you have your instrument, you can actually dedicate time to it in a different way. You can start connecting to music in a quiet, measured way and you start to discover interesting things. Maybe have a little more fun with it. Experiment with playing in a different way or different kinds of repertoire.”
Raymaellene Gomez, a junior at TCHS who plays trumpet, admits she can’t practice. “I make too much noise, the trumpet is loud and my parents get annoyed. I have been watching trumpet on videos. One came across my Instagram, [the 1977 jazz/pop song] ‘Birdland.’ It was an amazing performance, I got goose bumps. I felt connected!”
Montero recommends artists to check out on YouTube. For Gisela, it’s Swedish clarinetist Martin Fröst. “He’s amazing and super fun, but he also kind of dances when he plays. And he does different kinds of programs, not only classical but other genres of music.” For Raymaellene, it’s trumpet player Pacho Flores. “He’s Venezuelan so he has this Latin vibe. He’s really cool!”
Collin Thompson, now a first-year student at Montclair State University, tunes in from Six Flags Great Adventure. Montero jokes that his red, white and blue mask matches the sun umbrella he’s standing under. He says proudly: “I’ll be focusing on becoming a music performance major. Lou is helping me get ready for the audition process.”
Montero chats with them for nearly an hour, at one point holding her laptop out over her apartment balcony to show the group a panorama of the city, the red rooftops glowing as a purple dusk falls. “Life is not a straight line, it is full of crazy terrains. You have to learn how to navigate it and drive those roads. Nothing is for certain right now, so I think it’s important to have an open mind, and just take it day by day. Much love to all of you. We’ll keep in touch!”
Reflecting on the experience, Chen said, “It’s just one example of how online living has made seemingly impossible interactions possible.”
In addition to funding by the Gustavo Dudamel Foundation (which helps support the Trenton Youth Orchestra and the Trenton Arts Fellowship), TAP is made possible by several departments and offices, including the Department of Music; Lewis Center for the Arts; the Pace Center; Princeton University Concerts; Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students; Office of Community and Regional Affairs; and TigerTransit, which, until the transition to remote teaching, provided transportation between Trenton and Princeton for Saturday rehearsals and evening concerts at Princeton. Community partners include The Gingered Peach in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, which provides breakfast pastries for Saturday Morning Arts; and Princeton Violins, whose owner Jarek Powichrowski repairs TYO instruments and bows free of charge and has donated four violins, one cello and countless bows to TYO students.