When Lou Chen ’19 arrived at Princeton in the fall of 2015, he was struck by the plentiful opportunities to learn and appreciate music. “It really feels like that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where they walk in and there’s just candy everywhere,” said Chen, who had taken piano and violin lessons growing up. Yet he wondered how such opportunities could spread to underserved areas near Princeton.
“I felt that I could do something more, so I started this idea of a youth orchestra,” said Chen, a music major. He felt that he could do the most good by teaching high school musicians how to play string instruments, and found that the 13,000-student Trenton school district has just one music teacher who specializes in teaching strings.
“Particularly at the student level, people are realizing the impact that their talent can have on local youth communities.” — Lou Chen ’19
So Chen started the Trenton Youth Orchestra, which began with a half-dozen high school students and grew to more than 20 members, almost all from Trenton. With the help of other undergraduates, the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, and Princeton’s music department, rehearsals were held in Trenton and, later, on Saturday mornings on campus. Afterward, Princeton students provided free private lessons to the orchestra members.The Pace Center recognized Chen’s work with the A. James Fisher Jr. Memorial Award, which recognizes a graduating senior’s entrepreneurial spirit, zest for life, love of people, and loyalty to Princeton. The award includes $5,000, which Chen said would support the orchestra with a website and new violins.
“Particularly at the student level, people are realizing the impact that their talent can have on local youth communities,” said Chen, who was discussing a plan with Princeton officials last month to use the Trenton Youth Orchestra as a model for other community-University collaborations.
For a journalism class assignment, Chen told the story of an orchestra member whose family had immigrated from Guatemala and whose mother could only afford a violin of poor quality. Chen gave the boy his own student violin as a gift. After the story was published, a retired high school teacher offered to donate his childhood violin.
When he and Chen took the instrument to be appraised and repaired, they were stunned to discover that the violin and the bow were worth about $8,000. “I was sure he would rescind his donation and sell the violin instead,” Chen said, but the donation went forward.
In May, at the orchestra’s spring concert, the young violinist performed a solo — he played the donated violin, with Chen accompanying on piano.
Courtesy the Trenton Youth Orchestra