Dorchester’s Ajani Boyd, 11, got a big hug and a warm welcome from First Lady Michelle Obama on Monday at the White House. Boyd was at the executive mansion with a group from Boston-based Project STEP (Strings Training and Education Program), which won the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the First Lady.
Chosen from a national pool of more than 350 nominations and 50 finalists, Project STEP was recognized for its year-round classical string training program for city kids that invites them into a world of classical music that might not otherwise be available to them.
Already a seventh grader at Boston Latin School— Ajani skipped a grade in elementary school— he balances schoolwork, countless hours of music lessons during the week and all day every Saturday at Project STEP.
"I love playing the bass," says Boyd, who lives near Uphams Corner with his mom, dad and brother. "It's big, loud and cool. What I love most about Project STEP is that the teachers were once students and they show me that musicians can make a living."
The double string bass player has never missed a session or performance, despite his mother's battle with breast cancer. Monday was Boyd’s first time meeting the first lady, whom he greatly admires. He and his mom attended President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 at the age of 5 and made a documentary about the experience for his elementary school.
“It was really cool just being in the White House but to be in her presence and to actually have a hig and take a picture was awesome,” said Boyd. “She asked me how I was doing and how did it feel to be up there.”
Ajani is one of 44 students in Project STEP's core division who receive private, weekly one-hour music lessons by the finest teachers from the New England Conservatory, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Conservatory, and Boston University. Each students gets an instrument and tickets to concerts at Boston's concert halls and actively participate in chamber music ensembles and orchestras. Students are evaluated twice a year, and are required to participate in community service, performances and master classes.
"Studying classical music teaches Project STEP students about discipline, commitment, analysis and attention to detail," says Mary Jaffee, Project STEP executive director. "They become astute citizens of the world. More than anything, it teaches them the joy and satisfaction that comes from hard work and achievement."
Ajani started in the program at age 5. He switched from cello to the double bass after two years and is now considering a possible career as a musician.
“I'm going to stick with the bass,” said Ajani. “I just love it.”
When he is not practicing on the bass or doing homework— he loves studying the Latin language as well— he takes karate lessons at the East Coast School of Combined Martial Arts in Lower Mills. Ajani earned a black belt at the school last year.
“These are just all things I love. I only do the things I like to do and that keeps me going,” said Boyd.
In addition to the honor of receiving the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, Project STEP will receive $10,000. For more information about Project STEP, visit projectstep.org.