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One Musician's Career Gets Big Boost From Minority Program

AS personnel manager for the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) from 1966 to 1987, Bill Moyer assembled one of the finest groups of classical musicians on the planet. Assessing his handiwork in 1982, however, Mr. Moyer noticed something disturbing: Onstage, the 103-member orchestra looked like a club for white people.

``Back then, we tried to recruit black players for our auditions,'' he says, ``but because of differences in culture or environment or something, we did not find black players who could compete.''

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Together with musicians from Boston University and the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, Moyer formed the String Training and Education Program for Minority Students (STEP), a program committed to grooming minority musicians.

Twelve years later, the program has spawned offspring in Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Louisville, Ky., and produced several professional musicians, including 22-year-old violinist Vali Phillips.

A STEP member since the age of 10, Mr. Phillips is a student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and serves as associate concertmaster for the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra in Erie, Penn.

Phillips performed a solo recital last Sunday, sponsored by STEP, for a packed house of about 550 at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He views the performance as a small down-payment on an enormous debt he owes to STEP.

``This is the least I can do,'' Phillips said before the recital. ``I don't even know how to begin, they've provided so many things.''

Among STEP's contributions, Phillips cites classes, concert tickets, and opportunities to play for audiences as the most rewarding.

``They provided classes on subjects like theory and ear training, classes that I didn't fully appreciate until college, when I was able to place out of them,'' he says.

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The violinist says that performances - like his solo debut with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra at age 15 - helped him acclimate to playing in front of crowds. ``Everybody has to get used to it.... You could be the best violinist in the world, but if you can't play for an audience, it's all out the window,'' he says.

Of the 15 STEP graduates so far, all have attended college. Seven have opted for jobs ranging from financial analyst to electrical engineer, but eight have gone on to professional music careers.

According to Moyer, STEP selects students as early as kindergarten and supports them through high school and sometimes beyond, sponsoring up to 28 students at a time. STEP founders chose to concentrate on stringed instruments, he says, because represent two-thirds of an orchestra, and there are more shortages in string sections than in woodwinds, brass, or percussion.

While symphonies across the country have initiated programs to boost appreciation of classical music, Moyer says that STEP's approach is unlike the others. ``Many programs aim at enrichment, but ours is designed to produce professionals. We hope their example will encourage other minority musicians. It's not a question of discrimination anymore. Sure, there may be some, but our main concern is to get talented minorities the training they need.''

Training black musicians, he says, is one facet of a nationwide drive to expand symphony audiences. ``The whole culture needs to be changed,'' Moyer adds. ``It takes a long time to make a difference.''

``It's a wonderful program,'' says Catherine French, head of the American Sypmphony Orchestra League. ``These things take time, and [STEP] proves that the patience is worth it.''

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