An innovative partnership builds access and a vibrant artistic community
The idea was like a musical earworm that Lou Chen ’19 could not shake throughout his first year at Princeton: organize a youth orchestra in Trenton, New Jersey. The first notes of the idea started when he was growing up in San Bernardino, California. He was a pianist and violinist who received private lessons, a luxury he soon realized was rare among his peers in their diverse, blue-collar community still reeling from the shuttering of a nearby military base. His elementary school music teacher started a tuition-free youth orchestra that rehearsed every Saturday, and Chen witnessed its impact. “I was surrounded by friends who were incredibly talented at their instruments, but their only barrier was a lack of financial resources,” Chen said.
The crescendo began to build after Chen participated in Community Action and he observed the socioeconomic disparity between Princeton and other towns in Mercer County, towns that reminded him of San Bernardino. It was that inescapable tune that brought him to a chilly, overcrowded room in Trenton’s Our Lady of the Angels Church on Oct. 13, 2016. He was a Princeton sophomore, accompanied by three classmates — Mary Kim ’19, Elijah Ash ’19 and Kristin Hauge ’18 — and they had risen early that morning to attend this 7:30 a.m. rehearsal of the Trenton Central High School (TCHS) Orchestra and pitch his idea to the imposing figure at the head of the orchestra, Joseph Pucciatti, who had created and led the high school orchestra for more than 25 years.
Chen’s first impression was just how accomplished and in sync the orchestra was. The TCHS students were excellent, as individual musicians and as a unit. So he was especially nervous when he approached Pucciatti after rehearsal and shared his proposal for creating a new youth orchestra. Pucciatti listened and then gave a frank answer.
“I told him no — because we already have an orchestra here at the high school and these students are already being pulled in too many different directions,” said Pucciatti, who was born and raised in Trenton and has taught music in Trenton public schools since the 1970s. “‘We don’t need another orchestra,’ I told Lou. ‘These kids need more individual instruction. If you really want to make a difference, they need to have more lessons.’ And that’s the direction that Lou took.”
“Mr. Pucciatti told me to slow down,” Chen said. “He said, ‘Come to rehearsal once per week and get to know the kids. Show up at rehearsals and concerts and help them with their music. And then propose the idea of an orchestra to them and see what they think.’ Best advice I ever got.”
Lou Chen received his Princeton degree in music with certificates in conducting performance and American studies.
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