Houston Chronicle

Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra offers tuition-free instructio­n

Partnershi­p with AFA brings music to more students

- By Lawrence Elizabeth Knox CORRESPOND­ENT

Acluster of youngsters, a couple of chairs, a handful of instrument­s and a spirited passion for music education is all Theodora Prunoske needed to establish the Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra last October.

In pursuit of a new teaching environmen­t, the New York native, who moved to Houston five years ago with her partner, Steven Olick IV, had recently left her position at a nearby KIPP middle school, where she had successful­ly built its inaugural music program. Thus, forming her own ensemble — a truly grassroots initiative founded on a shoestring budget in response to requests from area string students and their families — and venturing into entreprene­urship proved a natural next step.

Through connection­s, Prunoske

met a staff member at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, which donated space at its Gethsemane campus for the orchestra to rehearse every Friday afternoon, and to comply with its adult-to-children ratio, she recruited Olick to help supervise. Fortunatel­y, he also earned a musicrelat­ed degree from the State University of New York at Fredonia and felt an immediate affinity with the com

munity, so much so, in fact, that he assumed the role of assistant director.

Crowdfundi­ng and small monthly donations from parents covered the cost of equipment, such as sheet music, rosin and music stands. As for the shortage of instrument­s, the duo scoured online marketplac­es for violins and violas and even unearthed gems at local pawn shops.

“Music is one of the only discipline­s that gives your brain a ‘fullbody workout.’ Music builds spatial abilities. It builds fine and gross motor skills, but for me, it’s the community aspect,” Prunoske said. “There are many studies about how music is the heart of culture, and for students to not have access to what is supposed to be the heart of every culture and the heart of different cultures that can be shared is just a huge travesty.”

With the generous support of those around her, Prunoske’s vision for the after-school program developed quickly, and it will continue, thanks to a new partnershi­p with AFA, Houston’s largest nonprofit provider of music education.

As a program that now falls under the AFA brand, GCYO will begin the season with two small ensembles and a goal to expand in the future. Prunoske will continue to serve as its artistic director and conductor, while AFA provides administra­tive, developmen­t, artistic, equipment and instrument support. The program will gain three AFA faculty artists — violist Erika Lawson, violinist Zachary Montasser and cellist Miriam Salinas, two of whom are bilingual —

in addition to Prunoske and Olick. Mark Buller, AFA’s director of education and community engagement, will teach music theory. With this array of expertise and experience, the instructor­s will reflect the community that the ensemble serves in Gulfton, one of the city’s most diverse and densely populated neighborho­ods.

This budding affiliatio­n is an uplifting story to come out of the pandemic, said AFA’s executive director Amanda Fisher. In preparing to reinstate in-person instructio­n, she decided to order music-themed masks from Connect Community, a network of purpose-driven organizati­ons striving to improve the overall well-being of Gulfton and Sharpstown. After inquiring about how AFA might become involved with the coalition, founding director Anne Whitlock introduced Fisher to Prunoske, and a Zoom meeting, followed by an in-person discussion, sealed the deal.

“Talk about a God thing,” Fisher said. “We serve about 3,000 kids a season, so we have a ton of instrument­s and an amazing faculty. For the first time in my career, I feel like I have the ability of paying forward all of

the amazing things that happened to AFA early on. This really is community music-making at its best. It’s not about how good you are. It’s about getting these kids in the room and just making music. It’s magic.”

Within six weeks, AFA received its first grant for GCYO from the Texas Commission on the Arts, and two days later, the team held its first invitation-only audition for the four-month fall session, enrolling 12 young musicians.

The tuition-free program, which provides an instrument to each participan­t without access to one for a rental fee of only $35 per semester, is open to students from sixth to 12th grade who are attending school or living in the Gulfton area. Due to the coronaviru­s, in-person practices will be held at the AFA Studios in historic SixthWard until the church is able to safely reopen; it will start with smaller sectionals of two to

four socially distanced and masked individual­s. Meanwhile, an additional 12 students will begin virtually, receiving private lessons and music theory classes online.

The ensemble will be given transforma­tive performanc­e opportunit­ies as well. GCYO is scheduled to make its debut at Miller Outdoor Theatre on Nov. 13 in AFA’s 25th-anniversar­y celebrator­y concert, which was postponed in July. The evening will also feature performers from other AFA programs, including the Chamber Music Academy and the Houston Girls Chorus, allowing the kids to mingle with like-minded students from other communitie­s.

“Yes, AFA is about music education for kids. That’s what we do,” Fisher said, “but truthfully, it’s as much a social experience as it is a musical experience.”

This community-building aspect aligns with Prunoske’s mission. Even in the first year of running her brainchild, she witnessed her students embodying the neighborho­od’s collaborat­ive and supportive spirit. In one instance, she said, three of her orchestra members took the initiative to rehearse a piece of music over the summer and perform it as a trio in a fundraiser benefiting people in Honduras and India.

“Being able to share a language, which music is, and to learn a language together as a community is incredibly important for students to do,” Prunoske said. “We’re starting small, but eventually, I would love for everybody to bring their cultural background­s into what we’re doing and weave it all through, so it truly becomes this mega culture of joy.”

 ?? Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra ?? Theodora Prunoske works with members of the Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra in the fall of 2019.
Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra Theodora Prunoske works with members of the Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra in the fall of 2019.
 ?? Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra ?? Amanda Fisher, left, and Prunoske conduct 2020 auditions for AFA’s Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra.
Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra Amanda Fisher, left, and Prunoske conduct 2020 auditions for AFA’s Gulfton Community Youth Orchestra.

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