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Student musicians take sounds outside the classroom

Nonprofit encourages community outreach

Kenowa Hills — Middle- and high-school string musicians recently tuned their violins and violas, while the cellists and a lone bassist ordered their sheet music on their stands they had set up inside the RiverTown Crossings food court. 

And then they played.

The small ensemble of Project ESME — Eclectic String Music Ensemble — Club House Orchestra students celebrated the “The Little Mermaid” premiere on June 4 at Celebration Cinema! at RiverTown Crossings by playing arrangements of music from the movie and other Disney films. 

Project ESME’s ECHO program brings together students from across West Michigan to participate alongside faculty artists in free workshops, private lessons and community performances.

Playing her very first concert with the program on June 4, Kenowa Hills Middle School seventh-grader and cellist Safiyah Whip said she got involved to try something new.

“(Project ESME instructors) make it more fun with the music they provide for us to play,” she said. “They treat us like musicians, not just students.”  

Safiyah has only played the cello for a year and said she enjoyed the challenge of learning new music and improving her skills.

“When I first got the music for ‘The Little Mermaid’ concert, I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to play it, but now it’s easy, after I started practicing.” she said. 

Kenowa Hills High School junior Jillian Hole has played cello since the sixth grade and is passionate about anything music related. 

“My favorite part of the program is being able to teach and learn at the same time,” she said. “We play with different people from all age groups and skill levels, so I get to learn from the instructors and work with younger students.” 

Kenowa Hills High School junior Emily plays first violin in Project ESME’s ECHO program ensemble at Celebration Cinema! at Rivertown Crossings

Making Music Accessible 

Classically trained violinist Gene Hahn started Project ESME, a non-profit organization, with friend and Detroit Symphony Orchestra cellist Jeremy Crosmer. The pair wanted to write their own arrangements of a variety of genres and perform accessible concerts in the community. 

“We got together and started jamming with styles the orchestra doesn’t normally do, (like) pop, folk and film music,” Hahn said. “It was really fun and refreshing for us to do, and perform in non-traditional venues.” 

The duo expanded their vision to include teaching workshops and concert clinics at East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills, Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kenowa Hills, Kentwood and Zeeland public school districts.

Kenowa Hills Middle and High School orchestra teacher Michelle Bessemer said she encourages her passionate students to pursue opportunities to play music outside the classroom. 

“Project ESME allows students of different grades and schools to work together without a real conductor,” she said. “There is no fear of failing the class or competing with other students. We believe in the program.” 

Bessemer also assists Project ESME with marketing materials and as a teaching assistant, and performs alongside students at public performances. 

Hahn said Project ESME’s ECHO program allows students to form more engaging and intimate relationships with their fellow musicians and play different kinds of music.

“You may not be friends, but while you’re performing, you work together to make something beautiful,” he said. “It’s about the learning experience … There are so many ways to make classical instruction accessible and inclusive.” 

Project ESME’s Club House Orchestra, or ECHO, performed arrangements from ‘The Little Mermaid’ and other Disney films on June 4 at  Celebration Cinema! Rivertown Crossings

Explore more unique video stories of students learning, interesting school programs and educators working to help all children succeed.

Read more from Kenowa Hills: 
Grandparents and other visitors pack the house on special persons’ day  
Making merry music, from a safe distance

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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