An Ensemble Grows in The South Bronx

In 2017, after auditioning to perform at the Bronx Borough Arts Festival, Bronx Prep’s instrumental music ensemble, Orpheus, took to the stage at Lehman College’s Lovinger Theatre, performing outside of the school for the first time. Orpheus auditioned again for the festival in 2018 and 2019 and was selected to perform both times at the renown Lehman Center for the Performing Arts. Even for those scholars who performed in 2017, the sounds of clapping hands and a rousing ovation after they played their final note, is something they would’ve never expected.

Orpheus began nearly a decade ago with less than 10 scholars who asked Bronx Prep’s Orchestra teacher, Mr. Joseph Alvarado, if he taught music after school. Despite being unsure if he had the time to manage an after school program, Alvarado moved forward with the group and it has now grown to 40 members spanning the middle and high schools at Bronx Prep. The ensemble officially became known as “Orpheus“ in 2014, and unlike other school groups, Orpheus members manage everything in the group from auditions to voting of potential new members.

For the group’s members ranging from 7th-12th grade, Orpheus not only provides an opportunity to learn to play music, but also potentially help achieve scholars’ goal of going to college. Richard Jimenez, a former Orpheus member and current sophomore at the College of Saint Rose, learned to play the cello under Mr. Alvarado’s guidance and is well on his way to becoming a professional musician.   

For his regular orchestra classes, Alvarado chooses to create music for the scholars instead of buying musical scores and parts, which he says, “assumes every student is at the same level.” With varying levels of experience among newcomers, he teaches the basics of playing an instrument and modifies parts to meet the scholars’ abilities.

“The beauty is they don’t know that. All they know is they hear the music and they’re playing a part that fits in with what the rest of the group is doing. They don’t even realize they’re playing a modified part.”

Having an opportunity to play an instrument and be part of an ensemble isn’t an everyday occurrence in the Bronx. But scholars who enter Mr. Alvarado’s class and Orpheus also receive something else – a leader, and an introduction to a life they never knew existed.

“Hearing their peers clapping for them at the showcase here is one thing. Hearing a room full of strangers give [them] such a big response [is] something they have never experienced before. They’ve come to really appreciate what they do here, by going out there.”

After performing at the festival, Orpheus members felt a sense of pride but also reflected about their journeys – and more specifically, on the role Mr. Alvarado has played in their lives.

“Without him, I wouldn’t know how beautiful music actually is. Without him, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” said Taemyia A., a BPHS scholar and Orpheus member.

Other members echoed the same sentiments of being part of a family, aspiring to become better musicians, and becoming a better person.

“I also want to thank Mr. Alvarado for being more than just a teacher, but also a father figure. He has supported me when there was lack of support elsewhere. He tries to help us out a lot with our problems,” said fellow Orpheus member, Eddyfer O.

For Bronx Prep alumnus Eduardo E., it was quite a moment as he’s been under Mr. Alvarado’s tutelage since he was in middle school.

“He’s literally seen me grow up,” Eduardo said after Orpheus’ performance.  I just want to thank him for opening me up to new experiences like the one we had tonight. We’ll never forget about you.”

The positive sentiment from Orpheus’ members is not lost on Mr. Alvarado, but the responses made him stop to think if he had already known how the kids felt but never thought about it.

“That was new to me. On some level I felt what I did was important but it doesn’t really come out as much as when you hear it from them. It becomes that much more evident and clear when you hear from the kids themselves.”

Although Orpheus members were feeling grateful after performing, there was one comment in particular that stood out to Mr. Alvarado: that’s it?

“It’s a lot of hard work and it’s over in just a matter of minutes. We were there for nine hours doing dress rehearsal, hanging out, practicing,” said Alvarado. “Then it’s over in five minutes.”

The scholars’ desire to perform again is something Alvarado is proud of and has motivated him to look into different opportunities for Orpheus. Alvarado said he’s beginning to see Orpheus forming into something greater.

“It’s not easy to know for a fact that you’re ready to perform and give a good performance. It takes a certain amount of fortitude on their part to know that. This is not something a lot of people can do.”

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