Dantes Rameau is the founder of The Atlanta Music Project, an organization that fosters music in overall education. Rameau is a native of Ottawa, born of a Cameroon-born mother and a Haiti-born father. Music is as much of a part of him, as osteoblasts as part of his bones.
Rameau’s organization is recognized nationally for reviving the use of music in contemporary education in underserved neighborhoods. He put the organization together following his completion of the prestigious New England Conservatory’s Sistema Fellows Program and modeled it after El Sistema, a music program in Venezuela.
The Atlanta Music Project is now in its fourth year, and its 110 young artists perform 25 concerts annually. The young participants have performed for Atlanta’s Mayor at the Woodruff Arts Center, the venue the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra calls home. They’ve even performed at Philips Arena with Roger Waters of the classic group Pink Floyd, in front of an audience of 12,000.
You were born in Ottawa. What are your memories of growing up in that city?
Ottawa was a great place to grow up. It is a very diverse city. My friends came from all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds and we celebrated our differences. To this day, I feel comfortable in practically all social settings, around all people and I attribute this to my experience growing up in Ottawa. This has come in handy for my work with the Atlanta Music Project, where a typical day might involve me pitching a corporate executive in the morning, teaching music at one of our sites in the afternoon, and meeting with the parents of one of our students in the evening.
Looking back on it, I realize now that Ottawa is a pretty small town. Big enough that I wasn’t too bored but small enough that I didn’t feel lost. In fact, Atlanta reminds me of Ottawa, because even though it is a much bigger city it still has a small town feel.
Who planted the seed for the love of music in you?
For this, I have to credit my parents. While they are not professional musicians, music was always playing in our house. Classical, jazz, Haitian, Salsa, R&B, rock – everything! We had a small piano in the house, and my parents played it often. Even now, I don’t think a day passes when my dad doesn’t play the piano.
They put me in piano lessons when I was six. I definitely enjoyed it and had a knack for it, but I didn’t always enjoy practicing. But my parents always encouraged me to practice, and as I got older I realized that the more I practiced the better I could play, and the better I could play the more fun I had playing and performing music. Eventually, I started playing the bassoon in high and joined my local youth orchestra.
The late Jerry Kupchynsky, a well-known music educator from New Jersey used to say that hard work is the true meaning of happiness. I would say that both my parents and music taught me the same lesson, and for this I’m eternally grateful.
Can you tell us even more about the Atlanta Music Project?
We ask potential students if they would like to play an instrument or sing in a choir during their after-school time. We tell their parents that their child must commit to coming to class five-days-per-week for two hours each day. If the family is OK with this, AMP gives them an instrument, a teaching artist, classes and performance opportunities. The kids don’t have to any musical experience and we don’t hold entrance auditions. Our philosophy is that with the proper support and dedication, any child can learn to play an instrument or sing in a choir.
The goal of AMP is two-fold: first to keep our students safe and off the streets after school. Second: through our rigorous music training, to develop in our students a certain resilience, confidence and ambition that will take them as far as they want in whatever field they want.
We have to raise a lot of money for this program – we’ve raised almost one million dollars in the past three years – but it is a sound investment. Because there are older and similar music programs in other cities, we know that students that stick with our program will graduate high school and go on to do great things. This is important since the high school graduation rate in the communities we serve hovers around 50%.
What have you observed through managing the program?
The raw talent present in our inner-cities is amazing and it’s a real joy to watch our young artists develop into confident and competent young people. We plan to expand our programming to different parts of Atlanta so that many more kids can have the opportunity to perform in high-quality music ensembles.
Your first name Dantes means “lasting, enduring, steadfast”, from its Latin origins. And I looked up the last name Rameau too. It means “branch” in French.
That’s interesting. I didn’t know that about my first name, but those adjectives are definitely essential character traits. From now on, I guess will have to live by them everyday! My parents tell me they named me after the Italian poet Dante Alighieri and added the “s” at the end so they could pronounce it French: “Don-tez.”
You hold a Bachelor’s degree in Music from McGill University. Did you have your parents’ full support at the time you chose to undertake this degree program. I mean, we all know that sometimes parents have these expectations…
It’s kind of funny that after an entire childhood of encouraging me to do well in my music studies, my parents weren’t – at- first – too enthusiastic about me going to college to do a bachelors degree in bassoon performance. But at the same time, they couldn’t have been that surprised. They eventually supported my decision, as long I “did well and produced results.” I think they understood that the rigorous music studies I had taken all my life had developed in me the character traits to do well in life, no matter what field I pursued, so they just let me get on with it and figure it out for myself. And eventually, I did.
Classic music is obviously a big favorite of yours. What other sort of music do you like?
My parents played all kinds of music at home and my friends were a diverse group growing up. So even though I studied classical music, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy other kinds of music just as much. I love salsa, Haitian Compas, samba music and have taken salsa lessons before. I also played tenor saxophone in high school so I’m a fan of jazz. I enjoy hip-hop, especially the early 90s hip-hop, part of the so-called Golden Age of Hip Hop.
Also, African drum and dance is amazing. Seemingly simple, yet so complex. Our students at the Atlanta Music Project often do African drum and dance before they start their orchestral instruments as it helps them connect rhythm, movement and story to melody and performance. This is so important in communicating your music to an audience in a captivating way.
You’ve actually taught music as well—at the Yale School of Music Outreach program. What is the main principle that you try to get across to your students?
Yes, when I was in graduate school at the Yale School of Music I did some teaching in the New Haven Public School through the Yale School of Music’s Music in the Schools program. It was a fantastic experience, one that had a big impact on my future career because from that moment I decided that I would pursue both a performance career and an education career.
And when you teach…
When I teach, I try to use my students’ development as artists to show them the value of consistent, hard work over a long period of time. You see, for most kids, and I was the same as well, playing the first few notes on an instrument is a lot of fun. But then to improve and become more proficient, well, that requires work. But not just any kind of work. The kind of deliberate, repetitive, strategic and analytic practice sessions that develop expertise. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers talks about the “10,000 Hour Rule” – how it takes 10,000 hours of this kind of practice to get really good at something. We’re talking Bill Gates-good at computer programming or Tiger Woods-good at golf.
I’m not saying that every child I teach needs to become a professional musician, but if music can teach them how to appreciate deliberate, consistent practice, there isn’t much they won’t be able to tackle in life.
And music is the best tool to use?
The reason that music is one of the best tools to teach this principle is because if a young musician practices properly, he or she will get incremental, but fairly immediate results. A small reward for their work will go a long way in teaching them the correlation between hard work and success. And if they keep that up over many years, well they’ll get really good.
Instead of simply telling my students to “work hard and play the right notes,” I try to guide them in learning how to practice effectively and then their own musical progress shows them the results of their own hard work. Lastly, I always encourage my students to play expressively, with a beautiful sound. Once all the rehearsing is done and it’s showtime, it’s their chance to really enjoy their playing and engage the audience. Playing music is like sprinting: it requires plenty of training but the performance is over quickly. But when it goes right, there is really nothing that compares.
What’s do you think music’s overall place in education?
I think music has an essential place in education because it’s such a natural thing for kids to do. It’s fun! But it’s also important because it teaches kids how to figure things out, teaches individual and collective responsibility and accountability.
The tricky thing is that in education these days, everything kids learn has to be measurable and it’s difficult to measure the benefits of performing a concert. It’s not like reading, writing and math – you give a test and you can evaluate what a student has learned or hasn’t learned. This is why music and the arts are the first to go when school budgets get tight. But for all the testing we do, high school graduation rates and college graduations rates haven’t improved much, especially for low-income and minority youth. So perhaps, we need to start measuring more than just math and reading scores.
Recent research has shown that the results of standardized tests are not necessarily the best indicator of future success. For example Angela Duckworth, who is a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Genius,” has done some well-known research on grit. She found that students who scored well on a simple 12-question “grit test,” which contains questions like “I am a hard worker,” were more likely to get to the final rounds at the National Spelling Bee. At West Point Military Academy, the grit test – over physical tests, incoming grades and leadership potential tests – was also the more accurate predictor of which freshmen would complete the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks.
I think that if programs such as the Atlanta Music Project succeed in demonstrating how important music is to the character development of children, especially those coming from the most challenging socio-economic backgrounds, we will gradually see more support for music education from policy makers and administrators. As much as I would like it, a well-performed concert is not a strong enough argument, so it’s our job as musicians and teaching artists to show the value of our art in more measurable and relevant ways.
As a native of Canada, born of Haitian and Cameroonian parents, did you have any issues balancing all three identities?
Fortunately, I didn’t too much trouble balancing these identities. It helped that several of my friends also had parents from different countries. I have friends from childhood that easily spoke three or four languages growing up, simply because of their background.
As a child, I spent part of my summers in New York with the Haitian side of my family and the other part of the summer at an overnight summer camp in the middle of the province of Quebec with French Canadians. And my mom adopted her niece from Cameroon when I was in eighth grade. So in the end, I was very comfortable balancing all three identities.
One interesting thing was that after high school I began to be more conscious about the lack of African-Americans in my chosen field of classical music. That didn’t have a direct effect me because it had always been that way my whole life, I just hadn’t given it much thought until college. In college this phenomenon caused me to question why this was the case and, given the opportunities that music had afforded me, what I could do to afford the same to other minorities.
When was the last time you went to Haiti?
I have never been to Haiti. I would love to go though. Most of my Haitian side of the family is in North America but my dad’s generation speaks nostalgically about growing up in Port-Au-Prince, so it’s important to me to learn and see my origins in person. Same goes for Cameroon, my mom’s side. I plan to visit both countries in the future.
Have you ever thought of doing a counterpart of your Atlanta music project in either Haiti or Cameroon?
The thought has crossed my mind, absolutely. I know that Haiti recently launched an El Sistema-inspired program with the government’s support, which is fantastic. I’m not sure what the music education scene is in Cameroon, but I assume there are local music programs there too. I would love to lend my support as it is needed to any local effort to bring even more music to kids in Haiti and Cameroon. As it relates to the Atlanta Music Project, I think doing an exchange, where Atlanta Music Project students go to Haiti or Cameroon and vice-versa, would be a life-changing experience for all the kids involved.
You were among The Sistema Fellows at the New England Conservatory and you got to go to Venezuela. What was that experience like overall?
Venezuela was amazing. The love that the Venezuelans have, not only for classical music, but for traditional Venezuelan music, rhythm and dance is infectious. I saw amazing youth orchestras and choirs, but I also saw amazing ensembles of traditional Venezuelan instruments, like the cuatro and the Venezuelan harp.
In Venezuela, the youth orchestras have a very important role in the community. Elected officials must be able to explain what they will do to support the local youth orchestras. I believe people there see music not only as a fun activity, but also as a way to build community and good citizens. It is definitely the youth orchestra capital of the world!
But it took Venezuela’s El Sistema almost 40 years to get to where they are today! They’ve been developing free, after-school music programs for all kids, rich and poor, since 1975. I hope that the founder of El Sistema, Jose Antonio Abreu, eventually wins the Nobel Peace Prize. He certainly deserves it.
Dantes Rameau poses with his parents.
Do you sing as well?
Singing is not my strong suit. [Laughter] I have a very good ear, of course, but when it comes to actual singing, like me singing, let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m an instrumentalist.
Any counsel for those who would like to follow the same career path as you?
A career in music is a beautiful one. My advice to young people that want to follow this path is to make sure to dedicate the time to developing their craft. But in addition also take the time to discover what role in your community you want to play as a musician. These days the existence of many symphony orchestras is being second-guessed. Great musicians who figure out how to support the development of their community, alongside businesses, schools and other non-profits, will always be successful.
And for the parents of budding musicians: don’t be afraid to encourage your kids to go into music, especially if they’re good at it. Music can be a ticket to college scholarships (saving you a lot of money!) where a student can double major. They’ll get the opportunity to travel and experience the world. Then, if they choose to, they can use their degree to get a job, go to graduate school in law, medicine, business etc. I tell our Atlanta Music Project parents all the time: not all my friends who studied music with me are making a living in music – but not one of them is unemployed.
What’s next for you?
I’d like to scale our work with the Atlanta Music Project. We’ve been able to demonstrate what our organization is capable of with 110 students, so the next step is to bring together funders and partners to bring our program to more students and neighborhoods.
I’ve learned that music is a very powerful tool for good and all young people deserve the opportunity not only to be exposed to it, but also to experience it and excel at it themselves.
[Photos: Rameau and his parents by Carlton Mackey; Conducting Atlanta Music Project students pic by Anthony Alston Jr; Rameau with the bassoon by Lauren Thomas.]
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Last Updated on August 30, 2023 by kreyolicious