At 13 years old, Ajani Boyd has already been to the White House, performed in front of 1,000 people at the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, played double bass with the Boston Pops and is now preparing to travel to Spain for a tour with the Conservancy’s Youth Symphony.
It’s all thanks to a Boston non-profit, the Dorchester ninth grader said.
“When you're a little kid learning how to play an instrument, you don't see all of this coming in the future,” Ajani said. “You don’t see any of this at all.”
When Project STEP first started, less than 3 percent of classical musicians were black or Latino, said Gabriella Sanna, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“We want to provide an opportunity for this underrepresented community because the obstacles to becoming a professional musician are not only financial but social,” Sanna said.
Ajani has been with Project STEP (Strings Training and Education Program) since kindergarten—Project STEP works with kids from kindergarten to twelfth grade. His music teacher recommended the program to him, and once Ajani went through the first few stages, which introduce the little kids to general music classes before recruiting only a handful to start the program, Ajani began playing cello.
“It’s kind of funny, I said ‘I don’t want to stand up all the time to play,” he said.
After playing cello for two years, his music teachers asked if he’d like to play the bass. Project STEP provides music classes during the school year, taught by former students and musicians, and Ajani was his bass teacher’s first student.
“My dad and grandfather, they love jazz, so they have a love for the bass, too. It’s an amazing instrument” Ajani said. “I was [Chris Johnson’s] first student and he was my first teacher, and still, whenever he comes into town… He stops by and gives me lessons and works with me through music.”
Sanna said that these professional musicians of color set a strong example for the Project STEP kids. While not all Project STEP kids will become professional musicians (more than 60 percent end up working in music), 100 percent of the graduates to do on to college or music conservatories.
But there’s so many more ways these kids benefit, Sanna said. They get support from a plethora of people. They learn delayed gratification, “working hard on a piece for months at a time,” Sanna said. They learn that they, too, can be successful, like the famous musicians of color they take “master classes” from.
“They feel empowered and become self-confident, become aware of how much they can learn and do if they only have right path,” she said. “And the problem solving skills you acquire over years of studying music are huge… It really affects the way you shape as you grow up.”
This weekend, Ajani will get one-on-one mentoring with members of A Far Cry, a collective of 17 young professionals and the chamber music orchestra currently in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. On Nov. 6, Project STEP students will participate in a master class with A Far Cry, performing and learning a lesson from those professionals in front of an audience. The masterclass is open to the public and is from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 6 at Symphony Hall.
Ajani said that learning some of the pieces he's had to play has been “grueling,” but it’s always worth the work.
“Every time it’s more challenging than the last,” he said. “It almost seems like magic once you get to the end.”