David Murray has been teaching instrumental music to Atlantic City students for 29 years.

This year, for the first time, he has a small orchestra of 27 students, housed at the Sovereign Avenue School.

“It’s so nice to have a home and space to work with a larger group,” he said. “We really hope to increase the level of performance. I can see improvement already.”

The district’s new Instrumental Music Academy is one of three in the city started this year. A Choral Academy is held at the new Pennsylvania Avenue School, and a non-credit Saturday Art Academy is held at the high school. Schools Superintendent Donna Haye developed the academies as an outlet and head start for students interested in the arts.

“We have so many talented children here, but we needed a way to go deeper with them,” she said.

Since the district has all neighborhood schools for grades K-8, it was hard to get enough students at each school to create an academy. So the academies were created at specific schools, and students throughout the city were invited to participate. The instrumental and choral academies are open to students in grades seven and eight. The Saturday art program is geared to grades five through eight but will take students younger if they are seriously interested, art teacher Ernest Cheatham cq said.

For this first year, the students were recommended by their teachers. The goal is to expand the groups to 40 or 50 students, and require them to audition each year.

The district’s music programs have grown, thanks in part to the efforts of Friends of Music, a program founded in 2008 by attorney and former state Sen. William Gormley and his wife, Ginny, that raises money to buy instruments for the schools and its students. The group donated a piano to the Sovereign Avenue School and has provided violins and other instruments to students who get to keep them if they continue their studies.

District staff spent the summer writing curriculum for the academies that includes more music history and theory in addition to music classes. The students meet in 80-minute blocks in addition to their lessons, giving them time to rehearse for performances.

“It requires a strong commitment,” said Choral Academy Director John Howard. “They still have to do any school work they might miss and they have to keep up their grades, just like being on a sports team.”

Howard said the extra time allows him to introduce sight reading, vocal training and harmony in addition to music theory and history. Students have time to properly warm up and can tackle more complex music.

“This is much more difficult than a typical music class,” he said.

The Art Academy started at the New York Avenue School, but was not getting citywide participation so was moved to the high school, where Cheatham teaches art. He said the move has helped students get accustomed to the high school and is giving talented students a chance to build a portfolio.

Cheatham talked about a talented student he had last year who didn’t take an art class until his senior year, not enough time to build skills and a college portfolio.

“If we had gotten him earlier he could have been mentored, maybe gotten a scholarship,” Cheatham said.

Sovereign Avenue School Principal Medina Peyton loves having the academy at her school and said it has spurred more interest in the arts among younger students who see the orchestra members with their instruments. Murray said he now has a waiting list of students who want to learn to play an instrument and other teachers have come in to help.

There are plans to get participating students shirts with academy insignias and jackets. Haye said they also want more students to audition for the regional and state choir and orchestra.

Students said they like having the opportunity to play together as an orchestra.

Seventh-grader Gisel de los Santos, 13, moved from Texas Avenue School to Sovereign because she heard the instrumental academy would be more advanced.

“I want to get better,” she said. Now in her fourth year playing the flute, she said she chose it because it has a beautiful sound.

Violinist brothers Joseph and Joshua Zee, 14, compete with each other, though Joseph said Joshua plays faster.

Shantall Castilla, 13, said she appreciates that the Friends of Music donates instruments to the students.

“If they see that you love it, that will give you the instrument,” she said. “I’d love to be a professional musician.”

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