The Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth Artist’s Initiative, or PMAY, commemorated its 5-year anniversary on June 10 at the Temple Performing Arts Center by assembling an orchestra of its students and alumni.
PMAY is a collective of musical organizations throughout Philadelphia dedicated to supporting students from communities that are “underrepresented” in the classical music world. The program offers workshops and financial assistance for professional development such as lessons, camps and orchestral participation.
Dr. Najib Wong, director of PMAY, said this is the first time the organization has brought together its alumni and current students to play together in one orchestra.
“Our focus is really to provide the resources, the mentorship, the financial support, all of those things, emotional support, to the students that are in middle school and high school to be prepared to audition to these top music schools and programs at the college level,” he said.
One of its most notable successes is Mayfair’s own Na’Zir McFadden, an alumni of PMAY, who was recently named Assistant Conductor and Phillip & Lauren Fisher Community Ambassador of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
“We want to add to the diversity and the vibrancy of the art form wherever they go,” Wong said. “We’re proud that we’ve become a community, working together at every level. They’re all connected.”
According to a widely referenced 2016 report by the League of American Orchestras, non-white musicians make up less than 15% of those in professional orchestras, with marginal changes over the last few decades. Organizations like PMAY hope to close this gap.
“There’s not many people of color doing this on the orchestral stage,” Wong said. “People don’t see themselves doing this so it’s hard to find role models. It’s hard to find teachers, mentors, supporters. You kind of become the uncool kid, you’re the only one doing this in your community.”
Along with a lack of representation, classical music is expensive, competitive and not always introduced to young people. Often the most successful are those who have access to private lessons from a young age, and those who can afford expensive instruments.
McFadden also points out the culture, referencing a “concert attitude” where people are looked down upon for clapping between movements, or wearing casual clothes to concerts.
“In a way this is what makes it so difficult or unappealing to people of color,” McFadden said. “We already face so many challenges in our day-to-day lives. Why would we want to be a part of something that’s another barrier added onto our daily lives?”
PMAY hopes to aid in breaking down those barriers. After all, those middle and high school students who practice classical music now will become integrated into the culture, and leave their own mark.
“The good thing about PMAY is that, yes, they’re introducing, but they’re also saying, ‘Hey, it’s OK to be yourself and play your instrument how you want,’ ” McFadden said. “They’re giving the opportunity so there are little to no barriers for the students to express themselves through music.”
McFadden will formally begin his new position in the 2022-2023 season. Along with his conductor duties, McFadden will serve as a mentor to student musicians, just as he was mentored in PMAY.
“For them to be able to see that someone of their generation, and a black man, is able to make a career for himself and to do well … I want to be an inspiration to the kids,” he said.
In its 5 years, PMAY had graduated over 35 students. As PMAY looks to the future, it hopes to see more of its students receiving full scholarships to school, and finding their place in a field that needs them.
“This constant encouragement is something every kid needs,” McFadden said. “This constant pushing or this encouragement.”