On June 10, 2019, six days after he graduated from Princeton, Lou Chen had a big decision to make.
Feed his passion for politics and take a job in New York at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University? Or feed his passion for music and service in a newly created position at Princeton that would build on the work he’d started his sophomore year founding the Trenton Youth Orchestra?
“It felt like the hardest decision in the world, but in hindsight, it was actually the easiest,” said Chen, who concentrated in music and studied conducting at Princeton. “The Princeton job was a unique opportunity to continue working with a community that I had become a part of and to be challenged in the best possible way.”
Chen’s decision to take the new job of program manager for arts outreach was inspired by Los Angeles Philharmonic music director and renowned conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s 2018-19 residency at Princeton University Concerts. Chen conducted a private performance by the Trenton Youth Orchestra (TYO) for Dudamel and his wife, participated in a conducting master class, and sat on a panel about El Sistema, the youth orchestra model in which Dudamel was raised in Venezuela, which has inspired similar programs worldwide.
“Maestro Dudamel’s parting words to me were, ‘Keep doing the work you’re doing.’ Hearing that, I felt like I had been infused with new energy,” Chen said. “And I have no intention of letting him down. He has leveraged his musical talent to uplift children across the world. There’s no reason we at Princeton can’t do the same.”
Through Chen’s vision, TYO has grown from six Trenton students who studied with him on Saturday mornings out of an old house in Trenton to an ensemble of 26 high-school-aged musicians who practice on campus weekly, receive private lessons with Princeton student volunteers and perform multiple times a year. (In March, the program transitioned to remote learning due to the pandemic.)
Just one year in his job, Chen already has orchestrated a miracle of his own: TYO has expanded into Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP) — an initiative that coordinates the University’s co-curricular arts outreach activities in greater Trenton. A collaboration between the Department of Music, the Lewis Center for the Arts and the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, TAP boasts three flagship programs for dozens of middle school and high school students — and has over 50 Princeton student volunteers:
- Saturday Morning Arts: Programming centers on the Trenton Youth Orchestra, Trenton Youth Singers, Trenton Youth Dancers and Trenton Youth Theater, with rehearsals, workshops, guest performances, and one-on-one and group instruction — all led by Princeton student volunteers.
- Collaborative projects: The Neighborhood Project, which brings Princeton University Concerts’ world-renowned musicians to Trenton’s public schools and Trenton students to PUC concerts; the Side-by-Side Concert series with joint concerts by Princeton student musicians and the Trenton Central High School Orchestra; and Tigers in Trenton, an annual showcase with performances by Princeton student arts ensembles.
- Trenton Arts Fellowship: Each Princeton student fellow serves as the leader of one of the four Saturday Morning Arts groups, supported by an alumni director, faculty fellow and Trenton teacher partner. Fellows also gather weekly to discuss issues relating to the arts, equity and education.
“Lou took the time to build the relationships before he built the program,” said Dave Brown, assistant director of the Pace Center. “He embodies the best principles of campus and community partnerships.” Chen earned the 2019 A. James Fisher, Jr. Memorial Award, given annually by the Pace Center, for his work with TYO.
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