Fifteen years after the Peabody Institute started the tuition-free Tuned-In program to nurture Baltimore City students with advanced musical training, its alumni are emerging as artists and educators. Kelsey Burnham, one of the 12 students in the inaugural 2007 class, recently joined the Peabody Preparatory flute faculty, and admits to getting a little choked up thinking about it.
“Teaching at Peabody is the dream that I never knew I could have,” Burnham says. She’s a New York-based flute/recorder specialist and educator with degrees from Juilliard and the Oberlin Conservatory. Growing up raised by her hairdresser grandmother in South Baltimore, attending Peabody was only possible through Tuned-In. Now she’s colleagues with her first flute teacher.
Baltimore City kids, she adds, often get told all the things they can’t do;via Tuned-In, she was mentoredand championed by musicians suchas JeeYoung Rachel Choe (MM ’02; GPD ’03; DMA ’09, Flute), and Tuned-In co-founders Dan Trahey (BM ’00, Tuba, Music Education), and Elijah Wirth (BM ’99, Tuba; MM ’02, Music Education). “To be able to give back to the program that made me who I am in so many ways,” Burnham says, “is an opportunity I didn’t imagine.”
Burnham, Jahi Alexander (BM ’20, Trombone), and Osi Atikpoh (BM ’18, Tuba) number among the Tuned-In alumni entering their careers’ early stages. Alexander recently completed a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music and has subbed with jazz big bands, symphony and ballet orchestras, and is a member of the Anima Brass quintet. Atikpoh ispursuing a graduate degree at UCLA and is 80-plus episodes into his A Song Called Life podcast, where he chats with a range of artists, comedians, scientists, and more.
Mateen Milan (BM ’19, Bassoon) and trombonist Bobby Woody returned to Peabody as Preparatory faculty—Woody leads Tuned-In’s new digital audio classes—and 15 program alumni taught during its 2022 summer academy. Burnham notes that Tuned-In teachers have encouraged students to mentor each other from the start, building education and advocacy into the process. “One of the best parts about the program is that your teachers make it clear that it’s not all about being better than everyone else,” she says. “They’re there to teach you musicianship and also just how to be a better person.”
“From the start we wanted [Tuned-In] to be extremely equitable and extremely diverse,” Trahey says of using music education to prepare students for life, an approach that grew out of his desire to see more local kids as Peabody undergrads. Doing so required rethinking conventional pedagogy and instrumental options.
“Tuned-In was the convergence of two things—one, enabling city youth to be aptly prepared at the Preparatory and two, diversifying instrumentation so that we could have wind bands and ensembles. We also want to be at the forefront of music education, honing music education skills as well as social and emotional development. And I think that’s what keeps us all going. We have faculty that’ve been with us for 15 years.”
This educational ingenuity drives the program—supported by a generous $1.25 million gift from investor, philanthropist, and Johns Hopkins alumnus William H. “Bill” Miller III—which has grown in number of participating students and provides a nurturing, creative space to explore musical expression. Tuned-In “opened up opportunities that not everyone has in school,” Burnham says, adding that it initially wasn’t easy to participate. Her grandmother already had to drive her to school every morning—on the other side of the city from her job— and the program’s Saturday classes meant Burnham couldn’t help at home as she previously did. But her grandmother knew how much music meant to her—and her Tuned-In teachers and peers understood how much of a sacrifice she was making to be there. They were there to support her when her grandmother passed away during high school.
“The flute is not a classical instrument, it’s a people’s instrument—it’s been around for thousands of years,” Burnham says of the instrument that’s never far from her reach, the one she’s known she was supposed to play since she was 14. “Sometimes you don’t come to an instrument already loving yourself, so when you love an instrument, what you’re first understanding is, My body helps me do this. Growing up is really hard and I didn’t feel very sure of myself, but at least I had flute.
“When I sit down and I play my instrument, I have something to turn to, I have something to express myself,” she continues. “This program was so helpful to me during the time of my grandmother’s passing. This program may have saved my life, if not the lives of others as well. I will always be grateful for it.”
– Bret McCabe