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How a Memphis Nonprofit Brings Classical Music to Young Musicians

by Madonna

When Isabelle Nieves ended up in the band class at Germantown Middle School in 2017, she didn’t want to play the flute. In fact, she wasn’t eager to play any instrument. Her mother had made her take piano lessons for a few years in elementary school, and she had hated it.

But in a school band, you have to play something, so Nieves decided on the clarinet or trumpet, instruments she was at least familiar with. However, students selected their instruments alphabetically, and by the time the teacher got to her last name, only the flute was left.

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“They say you don’t choose your instrument; your instrument chooses you,” she said.

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Nieves initially wished she had been “chosen” by a different instrument. She thought playing the flute would be terrible—it was difficult to carry, and she felt awkward holding it.

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“I was like, ‘Man, this is really going to suck,’” she said.

At first, Nieves struggled with the flute and considered quitting. But over time, her attitude changed. She improved, learned to read music, and in seventh grade, won an award at the school’s band banquet, which boosted her confidence. She started playing more challenging pieces and began to appreciate the creative possibilities of the flute.

She developed a love for the flute, a passion nurtured by the Memphis nonprofit Prizm Ensemble.

Nieves is one of many students in the Memphis area who have worked with Prizm Ensemble, which aims to build a diverse community through chamber music—typically classical music performed by groups of three to nine people.

A major component of Prizm Ensemble is its two-week summer music camp, running from June 3 to 15, featuring seasoned, professional musicians as faculty. The camp attracts a diverse group of sixth- through 12th-grade students from various schools and neighborhoods—this year, it has 102 participants—and offers them the chance to work closely with veteran musicians.

Held at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church, the camp’s small faculty-to-student ratio (5:1) is a significant benefit for students who may not afford private lessons and otherwise learn to play instruments in large school classes. Nieves was among those who couldn’t pay for private lessons and started with Prizm without knowing how to read music.

“Prizm is very individualized,” Nieves said. “It’s very small. You learn in smaller groups, whereas in a regular class setting, you have like 30, 40, 50 kids in one class all learning at one time.”

Another Prizm student, Anjali Jackson, who did take private lessons, also found her sight reading improved through the summer camp. Playing in small chamber groups helped her become better at picking up cues.

“I’m just better as a musician,” she said. “It’s been really great.”

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