It’s Saturday afternoon at Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts. About 20 children, gathered in the sanctuary, look over their sheet music. A cello rests against each ones’ left shoulder, their hands firmly grip a bow.
With the wave of her hand, Bithyah Israel cues them to begin. On the beat, she thrusts her index finger in the air to keep them on count. But within seconds she makes them stop.
“Pay attention,” she says firmly. “Make sure your bows are going in the right direction.”
“Yes, Miss Bithyah,” several of them respond.
She has them put their bows down and mime the movement, going back and forth in the air with their arm to make sure they are all moving in the same direction. When she is satisfied with their technique, she has them pick up their bows again. They begin the first measure of “New Day, New Way,” the opening selection for a fundraising concert at Berklee College of Music with acclaimed jazz saxophonist Walter Beasley.
Three years ago, Israel, a professional cellist, began giving free lessons to children in underserved communities in the Boston area through the organization she founded, City Strings United. For two hours on three Saturdays a month she has her students practice tempo, technique, and finger placement and study music theory. For students who can’t get to the church, she gives private lessons when she has hours available.
City Strings United was born out of Israel’s desire to bring something positive to a troubled community. In 2010 a quadruple murder in Boston took the lives of a mother, her two-year-old boy, and two men. “I couldn’t just sit by and not get involved,” she says.
Israel prayed for the victims and their loved ones, seeking guidance on what she could do to help. She approached the ministerial leadership of Twelfth Baptist Church to offer cello lessons. The church provided her with rehearsal space. Fourteen children signed up initially for lessons. A member of Myrtle Baptist Church in West Newton, where Israel is a member, gave her a check to cover the cost of renting cellos for one quarter. She now rents them at a discount. College music students and professional musicians volunteer to help teach classes and supervise the children.
“I didn’t have the means to do this. I just had a cello,” she says. “We wouldn’t exist without this kind of support,” she says. “It’s huge. The support creates a wave of hope.”
Divorced and raising a teenage daughter on her own, Israel works part-time jobs so that she has the flexibility in her schedule to operate City Strings United. She receives no salary and the nonprofit runs on a meager budget. She’s used her own money to buy groceries to make sandwiches for the student to serve them lunch.
“I’ve had my personal struggles, but there’s a bigger need here than my own individual needs,” she says. Amid her struggles to keep her organization afloat, she draws strength from her childhood in an urban area of San Diego.
“The financial struggles I had as a young person, moving around a lot, have helped me,” she says. “If somebody stops coming to class and I saw that they enjoyed it, I know from experience that something else is going on that they had no control over. Maybe the car broke down. That’s happened. Maybe somebody has gone into a shelter. That has happened. Maybe they moved or the parent has a job that now conflicts with the classroom lesson. So we’re always overcoming obstacles.”
As invested as she is in playing the cello for audiences and teaching the instrument to young people, it’s hard to believe that at one time, Israel didn’t know what a cello was. She was in 5th grade when her teacher announced to the class that free lessons were available.
“I wasn’t interested,” she said. “I didn’t care about it. But my mom said, ‘just try it.’ ” Following lessons in school, she took free lessons from a cellist with the San Diego Symphony. She eventually played with community orchestras.
Since Israel founded City Strings United in 2012, the student roster has risen from 14 to 32. Ages range from 3 to 20. Some students aren’t even reading yet. Bass guitarist Doug Rich, a volunteer instructor for City Strings United and member of the board of directors, is not surprised by the program’s growing popularity.
“This will pay dividends to these kids for the rest of their lives,” he says. “This could really be the start for some of them being involved in music.”
Kwame Nkrumah, an electronic production and design student at the Berklee College of Music has been volunteering for two years. “What we’re doing can help them become better people and give them a sense of what Bithyah talks about all the time, a sense of discipline, self- awareness and how to conduct themselves in a way that’s professional,” he says. “If I can help out with that, it’s not a bad use of my time.”
Parents credit City Strings United with helping their children excel in music. Regina Small’s daughter, Brianna Robinson, 9, was introduced to the cello through the program. A volunteer instructor recognized Brianna’s talent and gave her private lessons for free at the New England Conservatory. Brianna now performs with the Conservatory Prep program and also takes chorus to develop her voice.
“City Strings is awesome,” Small says. “Normally in our community they don’t take to instruments. It’s usually dance school or basketball or soccer, but children to have the opportunity to broaden their horizons. Bithyah is doing this for free. She actually taught Brianna over the phone and came to the house. She goes above and beyond to make sure kids get what they need.”
After the day’s lesson comes to an end, Israel sits down in a pew, the first opportunity she’s had to relax since walking in the door that morning. Her eyes brighten at the activity near the front of the sanctuary. The kids aren’t leaving. They’ve gathered around to listen to Berklee student Nkrumah on the piano.
“When I was a young person playing music with an orchestra–playing with adults–that was inspiring. I never forgot it,” she says. “That’s what I’m trying to give to these kids. That excitement you get, that’s going to carry them through school, during down moments in their lives. They’ll know there’s something good waiting for them because they’ve already felt it.”