5 Questions to Mariana Green Hill (Artistic Advisor, Project STEP)

Violinist Mariana Green Hill is concertmaster of the Soulful Symphony in Baltimore and a former member of the Young Eight, a group of emerging African American artists who perform chamber music throughout the country. She is the Founder and Director of Four Strings Academy, and holds teaching positions at Boston Arts Academy and Boston Public Schools. She is Artistic Advisor of Project STEP (String Education Training Program), a Boston organization providing high-quality music instruction to children from underrepresented backgrounds. We asked her five questions about Project STEP and its impact.

What is Project STEP, and how has it grown since its inception in 1982?

Project STEP is a program that provides comprehensive music and string instrument instruction to musically talented underrepresented students from Boston and the surrounding communities. Project STEP recognizes that certain racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in classical music, and ultimately seeks to address and correct this imbalance.

Project STEP has grown since its inception from a program that furthered the development of students with pre-existing musical training to one that now educates students starting in kindergarten all the way through their senior year of high school. To date, every single Project STEP graduate has gone onto college or conservatory–it’s our most proud statistic. In this way, the program is able to cultivate students from the beginning of their training and then continue to help them developmentally through the most formative years of their lives, thereby broadening its reach and transforming the lives of many more students and their families.

How does Project STEP identify and recruit prospective students?

Project STEP identifies and recruits students throughout Boston and beyond mostly by word of mouth through families that are already in STEP. The families of our program are one of our most important pieces. It’s a rigorous commitment that becomes a lifestyle. Not only are they providing support to their children, but they have become invaluable volunteers and advocates of the program as a whole. From travelling every Saturday for lessons to helping organize and run our events to helping spread the word about Project STEP, the families are almost as integral to Project STEP as the students themselves. Project STEP also recruits through the FOCUS program, which targets kindergarten students who attend Boston Public Schools or reside in the Greater Boston area. Through high-quality music instruction and demonstrations of music and different instruments, FOCUS is intended to expose children and their families to classical music, creating interest in the arts even if they do not pursue stringed instrument training.

How do Project STEP’s programs and services enable students from underrepresented backgrounds to have the same opportunities as their more economically-advantaged peers?

Because Project STEP provides its comprehensive services for a minimal fee, it places our students on an even playing field with the community at large and ensures that the ability to pay for top-quality instruction is not limited only to those with economic advantage. Project STEP is blessed with generous donors who provide funding for instruments, strings, and lessons, and a number of dedicated volunteers who provide invaluable time and support to our programming. No matter the cost, the entire Project STEP family is rooted in passion and love for what we’re doing and ultimately, the impact we have on these children’s lives.

In addition to your current role as Artistic Advisor, you are also a Project STEP alum. Can you discuss Project STEP’s impact on your professional life?

Well, I must say that Project STEP has changed my life in many ways. Having been a student in the program gives me the perspective of the trajectory that students are on. As an advisor and teacher with the program for more than 12 years, I can say that teaching the students is transformative to one’s life on both sides. Without a doubt, Project STEP helped me hone my musical craft, strengthening my discipline and commitment to classical music, and this has ultimately carried forth in my life as I progressed from student to teacher. I now pass along the lessons I learned in Project STEP to my students.

Now, I concentrate on trying to ensure that students and parents keep their perspectives during the different, and often difficult, stages of the musical process. With today’s challenges of schedule and school demands, balance is key.

On a personal note, the students and families enrich my life and I am grateful to give back to a program that has given me so very much.

Project STEP students and Mariana Green Hill with BSO cellist Owen Young

Project STEP students and Mariana Green Hill with BSO cellist Owen Young

How is Project STEP’s mission to rectify underrepresentation in classical music affected by major orchestral institutions that continually program homogeneous conductors, composers, and soloists season after season?

Our mission is to provide students with the tools to go forward and achieve their dreams in music, whether that means becoming a solo artist, orchestral/chamber musician, or improvisational artist. The world of music is changing and this program enables students from underrepresented ethnicities in the classical world to not only be on stage–but to be one of the best on stage. A door of opportunity has become available for classical musicians of color, and it’s widening. This change drives us and motivates us to work harder at providing the high standard of instruction that we have for the last 35 years. Nearly 1,500 children have been introduced to classical music through our FOCUS and core programs, and there will be hundreds, if not thousands, more to come. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s teachers and the barriers which once stood will be broken down entirely. It’s my hope that one day there won’t be a need for a Project STEP as there won’t be any underrepresented kids to work with anymore.