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East Chapel Hill High students lead music lessons, create community for middle schoolers

9th grader Alisha Chen and 6th grader Anna Ding practice playing the violin together at East Chapel Hill High School on Tuesday, March 26, 2024.

On Tuesday afternoons, members of the East Chapel Hill High School Youth Leaders in Music club lead music lessons for Phillips Middle School students. Middle school students are paired with high schoolers to refine and learn skills.

Rithika Bandaru and George Wang are juniors at ECHHS and co-presidents of YLM. Bandaru plays the flute and Wang is the first-seat clarinet in chamber orchestra.

Wang said midway through his high school experience, he realized that he was privileged to have financial support from his parents to pursue his musical interests. Around this time, he said he began to recognize that not everyone has the same opportunity.

“When I realized this, I wanted to create a mentorship program where we could mentor middle schoolers and not have the financial barrier of this to affect their talent and their growth,” Wang said.

Bandaru said the program not only provides free mentorship and music to the students, it also keeps their passion for music alive. She said YLM helps the middle school students feel happy and accomplished when they master a skill.

One student Bandaru mentors already played clarinet, but she also wanted to learn how to play the flute. Bandaru taught her.

“We were practicing getting the note out of the head joint and she made a really, really clear high A-flat,” Bandaru said. “And it was a small moment, but we had such a great sense of accomplishment and I was so proud of her. And it was just really special to both of us.”

Middle schoolers are not the only group who benefit from the free music lessons, Wang said. He said high schoolers who participate in the program can earn volunteer hours, gain leadership skills and get honors credit for their band class. Middle school students must be a member of either band or orchestra to participate in the program, but any grade is eligible.

Wang also said most of the students that go to Phillips will eventually go to ECHHS, and the program will provide those students with a familiar face as they enter high school.

Abigail Lloyd, the band teacher at Phillips Middle School, said because of YLM, the middle school students know exactly how to get to the ECHHS band and orchestra rooms, already know the band directors and feel comfortable overall.

“It's not only musically enriching for them, but it's really helping to build up a good sense of community for the students through music,” Lloyd said.

Wang said the SKJAJA Fund — a local nonprofit that aims to expand access to extracurricular and service opportunities for youth — sponsors bus transportation for the middle school students every week. He said the club was also awarded a grant by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public School Foundation that provides supplies to the club such as instrument equipment and practice books.

He also said, with more sponsors, the club would like to hire more buses or alter their route so that they can pick up more students at local middle schools on the way to ECHHS.

“It's a student-driven club and honestly, we love it so much,” Bandaru said. “It's such a fun experience for both the high schoolers and middle schoolers and it's a good way to build new relationships and connections.”

Grace Gao contributed reporting to this story.

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